Well, what a weird thing to say…
I mean, who doesn’t believe in wellbeing? Particularly at the moment, with reports of staff in professional services industries suffering due to overwork in lockdown.
I get it. And I do believe in looking after ourselves.
But increasingly I’ve come to believe that we’re talking in the wrong terms.
Because the problem with talking about ‘wellbeing’ in hard-working, driven industries is that it all sounds, well, a bit too ‘cuddly’. And possibly even a tad unrealistic.
Because when companies publicise well-meaning wellbeing initiatives whether it’s lunchtime yoga or Meditation Mondays, the risk is that it comes across as virtue signalling.
It sounds good from a marketing perspective but often the shiny veneer has little in common with the day to day reality of practice.
A bit like sticking a nice big fancy cherry on the top of a cake, whilst failing to realise that you forgot to make a properly structured sponge.
To be fair, HR departments across the land have a tricky task on their hands in identifying initiatives that actually have an impact on staff’s ‘wellbeing’.
Because one unfortunate (but common) side-effect of such programmes is that, by trying to ease the pressure in one area, you simply divert it off somewhere elsewhere. The pressure of the workload, the clients, the targets doesn’t just cease to exist. It has to come out somewhere.
Forgive the analogy but anyone who’s ever worn those Bridget Jones-style stomach-holding in pants (I can neither confirm nor deny having done so) will know what I mean when I say that the squidgy bits don’t just disappear when you’re wearing the pants – the bulge just oozes out somewhere else.
It will always find a way.
It’s the same with wellbeing. So, often when firms try to enforce lunchtime breaks or no-weekend working, staff end up working later into the evenings.
If an organisation encourages employees to take their full holiday allowance and not checking emails while they’re off, they will find themselves working like a demon in the days leading up to and after said holiday to compensate. Then falling ill on holiday as they’re so exhausted.
Or if they are authorised to hand over the case to a colleague while they’re off, said colleague will become hopelessly overburdened, before chucking the case back (sometimes quite literally) at their colleague upon their return.
With all this in mind, what can organisations do to support staff in a way that has a lasting impact?
- Support your business
Ditch platitudes and shiny one-offs and invest in consistent external support for staff. I’m talking independent consulting, counselling, coaching and training from people who understand the business you’re in, preferably people who’ve worked in your industry themselves.
Call it business support not ‘wellbeing’.
Business support is at its best when it incorporates two elements; structural and pastoral.
Structural support is not just creating a wellbeing policy. It means looking at all of your organisation’s policies through the lens of wellbeing. And identifying new ones that are needed.
So develop policies that support staff in difficult situations. Like a vulnerable clients’ policy. So when a client talks and/or behaves in a way that causes alarm to the lawyer (as they have, sadly, on many occasions in lockdown), that lawyer has a clear step by step guide of how to respond and sign-posting to other professionals who can help.
Develop a client relationship template with clear-cut guidelines on where the boundaries lie when clients behave unacceptably towards their advisors. At what point is it OK for the advisor to say no to the client or to tell them that their behaviour is inappropriate? Give examples of how to address such issues.
Secondly, pastoral support. This should be ongoing if possible. With an independent therapeutic professional. You need someone who has no ‘skin in the game’, who keeps confidentiality and who has no responsibility or involvement in management or promotion decisions. This is key.
- Watch your language!
Sorry for sounding like someone’s grandmother. But seriously, please no more references to ‘soft skills’ training.
There’s long been a snobbery in law and other industries about training that covers anything outside of the mainstream nuts and bolts of the job (or what in the legal profession we call ‘black letter law’).
This is an unfortunate side effect of working in time-pressured industries which prize left-brain analytical thinking over the right-brain’s focus on relationships and emotions. We start to view anything that is not chargeable and directly linked to the ‘bottom line’ as a waste of time.
But these skills that we refer to as ‘soft’ (think negotiation, persuasion, empathy, management skills) are anything but. What we’re actually talking about are hard skills for delicate situations.
Because if these skills were actually ‘soft’, then everything would be using them. But they’re not.
Delivered well, such training can ward off burn-out, demonstrating clever ways of dealing with intractable situations, of breaking through difficulties in working relationships. So, we can start to develop flexibility of thought patterns and creativity when such situations arise rather than just digging our heels in and issuing ultimatums.
- Watch your language pt 2 or ‘The F Word’
Back when I was in practice, euphemisms such as ‘robust’ and ‘broad-shouldered’ were commonly bandied about to describe those who didn’t appear to get emotionally affected by the work. This was considered to be an asset.
Of course, I understand that it’s important to have a professional advisor who is not going to bring their personal feelings and issues up in front of clients. But, I believe that prizing apparent ‘robustness’ has gone too far to the extent that we’ve glamourised dissociation or emotional avoidance.
Can we all finally just admit that we all get emotionally affected by our work. Whether we show it visibly or not. Whether we go home and drink to forget. Or run 10 miles a day. Or eat a chocolate cake. All of us have coping mechanisms. And none of us are without vices.
Not showing any feelings about your job in the workplace is not a sign of resilience. It’s a sign of being cut off from your feelings. And that’s not a good thing.
- Power and passivity
One of the curious things about life in professional services industries is that, even though, from the outside they appear to be status-driven, assertive professions, on the inside people can often be curiously passive.
So, advisors find it hard to say no or to have boundaries with clients for fear of losing business.
Issues with the work of team members aren’t raised until appraisal/review time, by which point it’s become a major issue that the team member wasn’t aware of.
These nerves about broaching difficult subjects results in ‘hot potatoes’ being passed around; it’s often common knowledge that there is a team member who is difficult to work with or who is not quite performing. But no one wants to address the subject. And if it is addressed, there’s often no follow-up, no bite if that person doesn’t change, particularly if that person is, for example, a big biller for the firm.
And this indirectness has a trickle-down effect. Because if juniors don’t see the seniors addressing tricky subjects directly, they certainly aren’t going to feel that they can. So they don’t raise issues, often for fear of being labelled ‘too sensitive’ or not a ‘team player’.
So, how to ‘de-fluff’?
This is no longer about well-being. This is about business support.
This is about everyone getting firmer about their boundaries.
And, more than anything, it’s about matching what you say with what you do.
We don’t need more slogans. We need appropriate business support to run through our professions like a stick of rock.
The Carvalho Consultancy provides training and support for law firms and chambers. If you’d like to talk to someone about this, do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org