Achieving a work-life balance

How employers must wise up!

Many ambitious young adults enter the workplace without giving much thought to the work-life balance. In a highly competitive environment some firms lose sight of the need to support their staff and inevitably their employees pay a high price in terms of stress and stress-related illness.

Early last year, The Law Society’s Junior Law Division undertook a survey of its members to assess their levels of wellbeing, resilience and mental health. The results were alarming: Over 80 per cent of respondents had felt stressed in the previous month and 26 per cent had felt severely/extremely stressed. The key stress factors were high workload, client demands/expectations, lack of support and ineffective management. 

More can be done for staff

Even more worryingly, over 38 per cent had suffered with a mental health problem in the previous month. Of these individuals, 55 per cent had considered taking time off (but hadn’t), and only 18 per cent had told their employer. Over half had experienced problems in their family life and relationships as result of their work. Needless to say, most felt that their organisation could do more to provide help, guidance and support in relation to mental health in the workplace.

Anxiety disorders, depression and burn out are not only undesirable at an individual level, but they are clearly bad for productivity. If firms fail to offer staff better support they run the risk of burnt out employees turning in lacklustre work, or they will fail to retain the talent that they need. Furthermore, if burn out leads to mental disorder this can be costly. Mental illness is one of the leading causes of employee absenteeism, and costs the UK economy £94bn a year, according to recent OECD figures. Employers have a duty of care to help people suffering from depression, for example, and have a moral and legal duty to assist in their rehabilitation within the work place. Better to address any problems early on. In failing to prevent mental health problems in the workplace, companies are only hurting themselves. 

Potential legal actions

In addition, firms who do not take mental health seriously may find themselves at the wrong end of a law suit. There are a growing number of cases where medical conditions have led to claims of negligence against employers. One particular case saw a worker’s initial €150 in compensation from the Workplace Relations Commission increased to €15,000 by the Labour Court due to the worker not receiving an adequate rest period by their employer.  

Mental wellbeing increases productivity

Conversely, research by the Mental Health Foundation charity found that policies addressing wellbeing at work increased productivity by up to 12%. Clear guidance is available on how to do this. There are four general themes that emerge.

  1. Whilst people across sectors may be required to work overtime every so often, limiting your own or your employees’ working time to manageable and sociable working hours could result in various health improvements and increased productivity. 

  2. Do not expect employees to respond to texts and emails when they are not at work. This might soon become legally enforced: the Irish Government is considering a law to ensure workers have the right to log off from work emails. 

  3. Have an open-door policy that encourages employees to come forward for 1 to 1 mentoring and support at all levels of the organisation. It should not be considered weak or shameful to seek help and advice in an attempt to prevent or alleviate mental health problems before they develop in to something more serious. 

  4. Create a working culture based on trust and wellbeing that does not allow an unrealistic workload to fall on any one individual (frequently a junior solicitors’ shoulders). Extreme levels of work-related stress should not be regarded as a necessary for career progression. Though legal offices are required to be adapt to changing workflows, this can be managed in a collegiate way. The best firms, doing the best work, are ones which truly collaborate as a team to ensure that no one individual crumbles under the pressure.

In summary

To sum up, more attention must be placed on mental health and wellbeing in relation to the workplace than ever before. Firms must consider the mental wellbeing of the people who they employ, with particular reference to the work-life balance, and they must build in a supportive network. It is instructive to examine best practice in other industries, including the use of designated mental health guardians. Everyone in an organisation should be aware of who to turn to when the workload gets too much. More often than not, when senior employees act down to provide extra support at busy times this can be a great learning experience for all, boost morale, and foster the firm’s long-term success. 

This is based on an article prepared for Lawrence Stephens solicitors by Dr Paul Keedwell.

George TaylorComment