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Mental health: Workplace wellness during COVID-19

Mental health: Workplace wellness during COVID-19

By Carolyn Ford

COVID-19 Health Wellbeing Workplace 


On top of the normal pressures of legal practice, uncertainty around work and the pandemic has increased stress for many practitioners, but there is help available.

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LIV president Sam Pandya approached 2020 excited about leading the LIV and making a contribution to the profession. As the new year approached, however, bushfires tore through the state and the LIV went into disaster help mode assisting practitioners and the community.

The fires were out by mid-February. By mid-March, COVID-19 was upon us. Again, the LIV took emergency assistance measures. It dispensed practice advice, discounted membership fees for the coming year and contributed to emergency law reform – all done remotely and in record time.

By April, Mr Pandya felt he had been in the role a year. The ensuing weeks in isolation have taken their toll on his wellbeing. “It’s difficult and stressful. I feel exhausted by the scope of the adaptation required over a very short time. Like most people, my mental health has been tested as I’ve been juggling so many competing responsibilities under difficult circumstances,” 

Mr Pandya says. “Talking to members and legal executives, it seems everybody is trying to juggle 100 things at once including supporting elderly relatives, supervising kids’ schooling, doing virtual court appearances, having client meetings online, as well as trying to get some basic exercise. 

“I've set up a home office in a spare room away from our three young children doing their schooling. I’ve had to put a bed across the door. I’ll be on a zoom call with a member of the judiciary and my kids try to come in. My wife works part-time as a lawyer, too.

“It’s important to prioritise mental wellbeing in times of crisis. As this crisis is all about protecting our health and safety, it makes sense that we extend that focus to our mental health.

“I try to take breaks and recharge my batteries during the day. I go on local walks and connect with neighbours, and friends over the phone or online. I try to keep a long-term view of my goals and aspirations and try to be kind when the challenges feel overwhelming. I try to remind myself and others that this situation is temporary and we have the resilience to get through it and be stronger for the experience.”

These are testing times for mental health. On top of the normal pressures of legal practice can be added working remotely, technology challenges, accommodating emergency law reform, client viability, reduced revenue, salary and job security, health, OH&S risks, concerning economic forecasting. Uncertainty underscores everything.

Demand for community support services has spiked as people, particularly those with pre-existing conditions, seek help with stress, isolation and uncertainty. The state government has committed almost $80 million to the mental health system during COVID-19 and the federal government has appointed Australia's first deputy chief medical officer for mental health.

Law firms and organisational stakeholders, too, are strengthening their commitment to mental health assistance. 

The Victorian Legal Services Board (VLSB) is working with the LIV, Victorian Bar and the Legal Practitioners' Liability Committee to coordinate support and communication to ensure lawyers have the tools, resources and information they need to be supported during this time. It has changed processes and updated guidance to ease the burden and potential for stress.

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Mental health focus: VLSB CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay

VLSB CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay says COVID-19 restrictions and the resulting changed business practices and isolation are causing enormous stress for some lawyers. She urges lawyers who might be struggling to seek help. 

“For many people, the economic challenges caused by COVID-19 will have a deep and long-lasting impact.

“If you are feeling overwhelmed, seek the support of a more senior lawyer, an office manager or trusted colleague to help address and manage your workload. It is better to ask for help than to have to fix mistakes down the track.

“We encourage anyone who is experiencing mental health issues to seek treatment and support. Where your mental health condition doesn’t impact your ability to meet your legal practice obligations, you don’t need to disclose this to us.

“If you feel like your mental health condition is impacting your professional abilities, please let us know so we can help. We will work with you to minimise potential harm to your practice and clients in a way that affords you dignity, respect and fairness.

“If you are concerned a colleague may be unwell or has been difficult to contact, please let us know via our new lawyer inquiry form so we can check on their welfare.”

Lawyer wellbeing is a key focus area for the VLSB in 2020. A report on research into legal professionals’ reflections on wellbeing in the profession is to be released soon.

“We want to help shift the conversation about lawyer wellbeing away from the current emphasis on personal resilience and learning to cope with the system that is making people unwell, to instead highlight and address actual issues within the system that drive poor wellbeing.”

For members of the LIV, a Wellbeing and the Law Foundation (WATL) partner since 2013, there is an employee assistance program (EAP), including a rapid response service, available 24/7. The Ethics and Practice Support team is also available to assist callers and may follow up when necessary. With member consultation, the LIV plans ongoing education and awareness events and seminars covering vicarious trauma, emotional wellbeing and stress management.

Upskilling 217 staff who are first aid and mental health champions on how to recognise, respond and refer a colleague for help is one of Clayton Utz’s COVID-19 initiatives. 

National mental health manager Emma Howard says from a workplace wellness perspective COVID-19 and having staff working from home for an extended period has presented the firm with an “unprecedented challenge”.

The most common issues are loneliness and isolation, anxiety, exacerbation of existing mental health conditions, changes to family dynamics and employment circumstances, relationship breakdowns and difficulties working from home.

“COVID-19 is affecting people in many ways, and to varying extents,” Ms Howard says.

“We have had people who have experienced relationship breakdowns and I have supported employees where a member of their household has lost their job due to coronavirus.”

Of Clayton Utz’s 1400 partners and employees (plus 89 graduates in the 2020 intake), between 1100–1300 are working remotely at any one time. EAP usage has remained steady, but Ms Howard has responded to more direct contacts, particularly after government announcements. These eased after firm-wide webinars on how to manage the psychological impacts of COVID-19 and other initiatives. They included the Resilience Box digital online wellbeing platform containing modules, videos, podcasts and fact sheets with the latest research on positive psychology, a Body IQ app offering clinically-designed activities and exercises, advice and tips on working from home and staying connected, resources to help manage parental and carer responsibilities, and addressing substance misuse, nutrition and staying safe from violence. “I like to instil a sense of hope and agency and having a healthy perspective on COVID-19,” Ms Howard says. “Withstanding uncertainty depends to a large extent on our mental strength. I encourage people to focus on what they can control or influence and let go of what they can’t, like government policy or the weather. We all have the power to change the way we respond to life events. Even the act of acknowledging this creates some relief.”

In May, to assist the judiciary, but also the wider profession, the Judicial College of Victoria (JCV) launched a Coronavirus and Judicial Wellbeing section on its website featuring wellbeing education and support materials for judges, magistrates and VCAT members to consider in the short and long-term. 

The systemic initiative arises from a specially formed reference group with representatives from all jurisdictions and after consultations with 25 judges.

“After our conversations, we had a snapshot of how some judges were travelling. They talked about experiencing similar stresses to those many of us are encountering, but with some particular challenges specific to the judicial role. Adapting to new technology and missing valued colleagues were common challenges. Although, these were also framed as opportunities to try new ways of working,” JCV judicial wellbeing adviser Sally Ryan says. 

“In some ways, judges are well placed to deal with professional isolation because their decision-making happens on their own. What has changed is not having incidental access to colleagues, that camaraderie, but they are proactively reaching out to each other remotely.

“Some talked about the workload waiting for them up ahead. The judges are very mindful of the impact this is having on the wider community and the need for fair access to justice.” 

Judges and magistrates, some of whom rotate working between home and court, have EAP access and the JCV will adapt its judicial peer support program, which educates members of the bench about recognising signs of distress and how to respond.

“The judiciary is very willing to deal with mental health issues. It’s an open topic now, different to five years ago. Even so, for all of us, it can be hard to prioritise wellbeing even though we know we should, and now the needs are greater than ever,” Ms Ryan says.

Minds Count Foundation director, lawyer Mary Digiglio, says the legal profession is in a much better position to respond to current mental health and wellbeing issues as it has more than a decade of experience, learning and initiatives in place. 

In recent years, firms, courts, associations and authorities have introduced wellbeing assistance programs for members of the legal profession, coming as it has after 2009 research from Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Research Institute showing higher levels of distress and depression among law students and lawyers compared with other professionals. The Institute also found, however, lawyers were more likely to seek help and a 2011 Beyond Blue study showed 22 per cent of lawyers had the highest level of mental health training compared to other professionals. Now, mental health first aid at firms is not uncommon, and it’s on that foundation many firms are building during COVID-19.

“We are in a stronger position than if we hadn’t done that previous work,” Ms Digiglio says. Minds Count, formerly the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, has promoted workplace psychological health and safety since 2008. Its best practice guidelines have 220 legal workplace signatories in Australia and overseas. “We have done so much work on wellbeing awareness in the law. People are making an extra effort now to be cared for. The legal industry is not going to be as badly affected as it could have been. It could be a lot worse.”

Ms Howard, who joined Clayton Utz a year ago and introduced a range of resources and support, agrees the profession is well positioned. “The legal industry has for some time now understood that workplace wellness has to be a priority. The health crisis we’re facing brings it into sharper focus. We’ve been even more proactive in reminding people of support that’s available as well as providing new tools.”

Still, the mental health of lawyers, like everybody else, is affected by the global health crisis. Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, out of control, physically discomfited, unable to concentrate and mentally exhausted are among responses reported.

Stress management consultant Tania Menahem says the pandemic is uniquely stressful not least because there are so many unknowns about it and its effects. “We have never experienced anything like this before. My main recommendation is keep a routine. 

On schooldays my kids are in their school uniforms,” Ms Menahem says.

“Don’t watch TV that is scare-mongering. Remind yourself of all the good things in your life, that you are working safely from home and that Australia’s situation is relatively good and much better than many other countries.”

Ms Digiglio has had staff go on stress leave and she herself has difficulty switching off. “Everybody is having a unique COVID-19 experience but there are people who are struggling, young and old. They are finding the isolation overwhelming and managing kids impossible.” The Swaab managing partner has oversight of about 70 staff across the firm, as well as the property law practice, and, with her lawyer husband, of a nine-year-old daughter, now home schooling which has caused her stress levels to “go through the roof . . . it’s remarkable that anyone at home with children can do their job. But then living alone also has its own issues. 

“It’s a slog. I feel work is all I do. I am up at 3am and work until 11pm most days. I have a problem stopping. You can’t pass any of this on to clients, the individual must absorb that cost whether it be monthly billing, coordinating mail, doing the photocopying or finding your own express post envelope.”

Efforts to alleviate the pressure remotely include a morning team call, individual texts to every employee, urging staff to contact colleagues they don’t typically work with and Friday night socials on Zoom. “We get to meet people’s dogs and see their kitchen renovation. People want personal connection. They are coming out of their shells, it’s good to see.”

The conversation about transitioning back to the office has begun. Clayton Utz’s recovery team is encouraging staff input. Ms Howard anticipates returning to the office will cause distress for some and she plans firm-wide webinars on the psychological impacts of this eventuality.

“When restrictions are lifted and we start to transition back, I’m anticipating this will cause some people distress. Many have gotten used to a new routine, and also feel a level of comfort and safety being at home, so returning to work during COVID-19 may cause an increase in anxiety, stress and tension.”

It’s agreed the pandemic experience has provided positives – valuable insights into preparedness, more efficient working arrangements but also the grit and cooperation of staff. 

“I am so proud of the team,” Ms Digiglio says. “Everybody has been so gracious in this really difficult time. People are working very hard together, it’s all hands to the pump. It’s wonderful to feel that.”

Says Ms Howard, “I have been impressed by the level of cooperation and collaboration across our workplaces and throughout the public, private, government and not-for-profit sectors, and the community.” ■

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