Band-Aids, boundaries & the stickiness of psychological safety: 7 highlights from Unmind’s ‘Optimizing Talent in Law’ webinar
April 24, 2023
There are only two types of law firms, really.
Those that say all the right things about employee wellbeing. And those that actually do something. (It won’t shock you to learn it’s the second type that fares better in business.)
That said, moving towards a culture that’s psychologically safe – where work is actually good for your mental health – takes serious, well, work. You can’t just log into a healthy mind, and there is no off-the-shelf solution for better wellbeing.
To discuss how change really happens, Matt Jackson – Unmind’s GM & VP of Americas – spoke to two legal leaders: Kathleen Pearson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pitman LLP, and James Keshavarz, Chief Wellness Officer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
You can catch up on the webinar in full, right here. And, before you watch, here are seven key takeaways.
WELLBEING IS NOT A PERK
The law sector’s diehard focus for attracting top talent is not dead, yet a vibe shift is underway. Now, many firms want to optimize the headcount they already have, and wonder how best to go about it.
And, while right-minded organizations know that mental health and wellbeing initiatives aren’t a bauble to tag on to a benefits package, many still haven’t caught up. At some firms, the meditation app or yoga class – without much in the way of real support or strategy – still reigns.
“A lot of people still see the addition of a wellbeing program as sprinkling glitter over a benefits program,” said Matt Jackson.
Yet this stuff isn’t just short-sighted. Sometimes it’s scary.
Matt: “In a really important study, in 2022, by Patrick Krill and team, they found that [at] firms where associates didn’t feel like their firm valued them, over one-third of those associates were considering leaving the profession because of ill mental health, burnout and stress.
“That’s not just leaving those firms, that’s leaving the profession.”
Kathleen Pearson backed this up, stressing that what the legal sector needs is real action, not half-baked perks.
“We truly are a 24/7 business, and there is a direct implication in terms of pressure and strain…” she said.
“If you’re gonna be a thriving law firm of any size in the future – that’s expected to attract and retain talent – you’re gonna have to start thinking about wellbeing, and really taking care and fostering the mental wellbeing, the financial wellbeing, the health, and just overall stickiness that you can have with a wellbeing program.”
BOUNDARIES ARE BEAUTIFUL
Kathleen also urged leaders to role model the right behavior, starting with healthy boundaries.
“Setting a boundary doesn’t necessarily mean saying no to something – it’s setting expectations,” she said. “And, of course, there are always exceptions to that.
“There are times where deal flow demands that you’re going to have to work over the weekends, or you’re going to have to work longer, but [it’s about] setting out how you have that conversation with the partners, and your team, about how you’re going to work efficiently together, and where you need to take a break.”
Key to this is communication and, for those who need it, a dash of insight too.
“[It’s] then also just educating the partners and more senior people, who are not necessarily used to having those conversations, how to hear that, and how to be receptive to it,” Kathen said.
“Not hear, ‘Oh, kids today don’t ever want to work’. That’s not true. They do want to work, but they would also like to have time to kind of unplug and disconnect. And wouldn’t you like that as well?”
EVIDENCE OVER ADVICE
In the webinar, James Keshavarz was clear that, though a lot of legal firms do have good intentions, many still fall into the “check the box” trap around wellbeing.
In fact, advice alone is often impractical, or even offensive – for instance, championing self-care in the face of a white-hot, always-on work culture. Instead, James suggested a more “intentional and strategic” approach, with science at the core.
“Legal professionals like to see evidence, it’s a very big part of what is learned in law school,” he said. “‘Examine evidence – look for why this is the case’.
“And we find that showing true, evidence-based research … has been very helpful with the systemic change of things.”
James’ advice? Swap reactive measures – that only snap into gear once something has already gone wrong – for things geared around insight and, as a result, prevention.
“To have true systemic change, you start to want to do programs more around those psychological safe spaces, right?
“Things such as mental health first aid training for leadership, [or] creating more self-awareness.”
MENTAL HEALTH IS AN ORGANIZATIONAL ISSUE
As we outlined up top, there is no easy ‘on-switch’ for lasting change. That said, as Matt pointed out, companies can make a great leap forward by simply shifting their assumptions.
“Mental health is always about the individual, but when we’re looking to drive cultural and systemic change, it needs to be more organizational,” he said.
To back this up with hard facts, Matt noted some eye-popping data from Gallup.
“Across hundreds of countries [and] ten thousands of people that they test within their various different surveys, they found that the biggest impact on your engagement, as an employee, is your wellbeing.
“And the biggest impact on your wellbeing is your manager, or your leader.”
He added: “The single biggest thing that your manager or leader can do to positively impact your wellbeing is to have one meaningful conversation with you a week. That’s it. One meaningful conversation.
“And, to me, that’s free. What that takes is EQ, it takes empathy, [and] it takes understanding of how to be a good listener.”
TRUST IS STICKY (WHEN YOU EARN IT)
Psychological safety – the idea no one feels embarrassed or at risk for speaking up at work – is vital to driving cultural change. But, as with everything so far, there’s a mega-thick line between warm words and actual actions. And legal leaders need to close this gap.
Matt: “If the managing partner embraces psychological safety, but it is violated every day at a team level, then there is no psychological safety, regardless of what the managing partner says.”
How to make this a reality?
The answer, Kathleen suggested, is trust.
“Trust in the organization, managers and co-workers is the psychological glue that holds it all together.
“It starts with the HR department. When the HR department gets word, or gets wind, [then] it’s helping people immediately, and really listening and leaning into that … and that builds within the culture.
“If more people see that the HR department takes things seriously, then they feel like their needs and concerns are being addressed.”
MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING (REALLY)
The notion that a sky-high salary will oust any other offer, benefit or wider motivation is starting to lose its power. Our panel agreed that, now, cash isn’t always king. Or at least not long term.
“Money only goes so far,” James said. “High salaries are a motivating factor to get people through the door, but what can set a firm apart is a more transformational leadership model.
He added: “Being treated like a human is a far greater retention tool than anything else.”
Kathleen pointed out that though Covid-19 (or “the great laptop swap”) shook up the sector, the trend of firms flocking back to the office could prove to be more potent than we realize.
“If you have one best friend at work you are infinitely more likely to feel as if you have a purpose, and therefore would be more compelled to stay in that environment,” she said.
“This breaks down transactional leadership and builds community.”
NO MORE BAND-AIDS
To close out the session, Matt asked the panel to shout out their own organizations. In particular, what part of their own wellbeing strategy are they most proud of?
For Kathleen, it was stigma. Or rather, how Pillsbury combats it with robust support – like taking away billable hour requirements, and letting staff move to flexible schedules.
She also championed company execs and the 45-person HR team for taking mental health training. “You can already see the impact,” she said. “There’s an incredible change of perspectives and thought processes.”
As for James, he praised 800 sign-ups for Gibson Dunn’s voluntary resiliency program – a 20-minute commitment for nine weeks, packed with handy resources and Unmind content.
“We’re getting amazing feedback, and we’re seeing action being taken,” he said. “It’s knowledge that’s being applied, and that’s such a big part of creating a psychologically safe space.
“It’s true systemic change – we’re not just putting Band-Aids on a dam.”
Catch up on the full recording here.