Putting wellbeing at the heart of things

Traditionally built on a work-hard-at-all-costs attitude, looking after your mental, physical, and emotional health has not always been seen as a priority for legal professionals. MAS has a long history of providing services for members of high-pressure professions and recently partnered with the New Zealand Bar Association and to extend its unique approach of caring for its Members health and wellbeing to New Zealand’s barristers.

Over the past five years, the law sector has experienced a cultural shift in the space of workplace health and wellbeing. Heightened awareness around mental health, pay equity, and the #MeToo movement mean the culture of the profession is slowly changing.

Maria Austen, a barrister specialising in employment law and investigations says the spotlight on these issues has raised wider conversations about the importance of mental wellbeing and health within in the law profession. Maria has worked as a lawyer for over 20 years and remembers when times were different.

“We’re realising that especially with women, allowing a work/family balance is important, and has a huge effect on the culture of a law firm, and the performance of the individual.”

The law profession was renowned for its late nights, stressful deadlines, and until recently sometimes a “blowout” party culture. When you add trying to juggle all the other pressures of family life into the mix, it can lead to burnout and mental health issues.

Austen suggests that the former prevalence of old-fashioned workplace attitudes, which often didn’t consider additional pressures placed on female lawyers who elect to have a family, could be a contributor for some to overwhelming stress.

“To feel a true work/life balance, you have to know your workplace supports you.”

Those working in the profession need to focus on relaxation outside the office; creating an environment with minimal stimuli. Practitioners also need to enjoy the time in between big cases and projects to gather their breath and recharge before the next big job commences. A focus on health and well-being and fixed time for reflection is vital to success.

“Burnout isn’t just work-related – it affects all areas of your life. If you’re not properly getting the downtime you need, it’s possible things could start feeling unmanageable. When you’ve got space to breathe, capitalise on that because it might not last long.”

Changing pressures Andrew King sees the pressures many working in the legal profession face every day. In 2011 he founded LegalInnovate, and as part of that has been advising law firms on how best to use modern and innovative technologies.

King says traditionally the law sector has been slow to change, although this is definitely changing with firms looking at how they can adapt and thrive in this changing market.

“It’s a unique situation. In some firms, there are lawyers who will resist tech changes and still endure the pressures of menial or manual work. For me, it’s a matter of educating them on how it will benefit their client, their time, and their bottom line – because often they are just unaware.”

Pressure mounts from clients and younger lawyers entering the workforce, who expect a certain level of technology. When this level isn’t met, it can hinder the success of the firm, and drive young employees to more tech-savvy workplaces.

This creates unique stress for older lawyers to learn how to implement new technology, both for the sake of in house processes and for the quality of service they can provide for their clients he says.

“It can have a negative effect on culture and productivity if employees feel their time could be used more efficiently. And as for clients, they want specialised law advice, not to be invoiced for administration tasks.”

The successful lawyers of tomorrow will be the ones that innovate through leveraging technology, to deliver more efficient legal services. King says those that are open to innovation and embracing technology will be the ones that lead the way. The ones that choose not to, could be left behind by an increasingly competitive market.

“The profession should continue to ask themselves ‘how can we do this better – to deliver legal services that are more efficient, profitable, whilst providing greater value and outcomes for their clients,’” he says.

Focus on wellbeing Health and wellbeing of Members have always been at the heart of things for MAS (Medical Assurance Society) which has partnered with the New Zealand Bar Association to provide insurance and financial services for NZBA members.

MAS General Manager of Marketing and Products, Mike Davy, says what sets MAS apart is being a mutual. Being owned by its Members makes it natural to truly prioritise things that benefit the membership – protecting what matters most to them, including the mental and physical health and wellbeing of Members and their families.

In recent years, MAS has also made efforts to consider the wellbeing of the wider society and natural environment, choosing to be a responsible investor that doesn’t invest in companies that make or sell armaments, make or distribute tobacco, and doesn’t invest in companies in the fossil fuel industries.

The most recent expression of this mutual culture is a cyber-bullying benefit which allows members to claim up to $5,000 a year to cover the costs of a cyber-bullying event such as counselling, lost salary, relocation or private tutoring.

“We’ve got a long history of looking after our members and their families’ wellness and we’re always looking at ways to improve the lives of our Members so they can focus on getting on with life without worry,” Davy says.

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