The move to working from home in the legal profession has raised questions about lawyer wellbeing and how to better manage it.
While the work from home (WFH) movement has been steadily gaining momentum over the past decade, the Covid pandemic quickened the pace at which many industries pivoted to WFH as a more permanent aspect of their work culture. The legal profession is no exception.
And now as vaccination rates soar and the heavier widespread lockdown measures used to help manage the pandemic ease off, WFH and flexible working arrangements look set to stay, at least in some form or another.
This is more evidenced in cities such as Brisbane and Perth where lockdowns have been few and far between and some of Australia’s top commercial lawyers have seen a pattern emerging of how staff will choose to split their time between the office and WFH. The June 2021 AFR Law Partnership survey found that Mondays and Fridays have been the most popular days, which fits with what looks to be an industry-wide average of firms seeking a 60/40 split between working on-site and WFH.
However, while there are some benefits to WFH and more flexible work arrangements, such as for lawyers who also have caregiving responsibilities, there is another side that needs to be carefully considered – the effect on mental health WFH can have.
A key finding saw the average mental wellbeing rating sitting at a lowly 3.82/10 – down considerably from 5.25/10 in May 2020. Other findings included:
93 per cent struggled to focus more so than usual (up from 73 per cent)
63 per cent experienced disrupted sleep
General productivity is, on average, at 40 percent of usual levels.
71 per cent identified establishing boundaries between work and non-work as one of the biggest challenges they currently faced.
Clearly these numbers need to be contextualised against the added toll on mental health and lawyer wellbeing that comes for some in the profession as they manage living through a pandemic.
But as we emerge from the pandemic and WFH looks like becoming a fixed part of the working landscape, while lawyer wellbeing will potentially rise as life approaches something more like normal, some of the issues around WFH may linger. How this can be managed could be a pressing question law firms will need to answer to ensure their workforce is both optimised professionally and in terms of their mental health and wellbeing.
Tips for WFH for lawyers and maintaining wellbeing
Moving forward as WFH becomes more commonplace, there are some simple tips to managing WFH and in doing so ensuring lawyer wellbeing and mental health is factored in.
Establish a work routine
While sometimes the idea of a ‘habit’ is frowned upon, establishing healthy habits is the bedrock for how many of us live our lives.
So, while we’ve all seen the memes about crawling straight from bed to a laptop and working in PJs, being more formal about WFH days and keeping a routine is critical as it also helps establish clear boundaries between the work and non-work day.
Having a set start and end time will help, taking a designated lunch break and getting into regular work clothes or at least casual Friday attire are all ways to ensure a routine is set and the day feels like a proper workday.
Maintain those boundaries
WFH means bringing work life into a very personal space, and this is where the lines between work and home blur – and with them, so can wellbeing.
While not all will have the luxury of a separate room or office to WFH, working at the kitchen table or balancing a laptop on knees from the sofa isn’t ideal.
Find a way to have a dedicated part of a room at home as your workspace if at all possible, and if it is a shared space, consider engaging work practices such as the Pomodoro Technique to allow a time-out and some space away from whoever might be sharing the space.
If WFH is looking to be a permanent fixture, do some planning about how it will work.
Consider elements such as:
Your equipment and technology set-up
How communications with your clients and colleagues are best handled
Balancing personal commitments at home that may crop up as you work
This will also ensure you remain professional and in work mode when WFH.
Focus on fitness – physical and mental
Stay active during WFH days in the same way you may incorporate some kind of physical activity on days you go into the office.
Use the time when you would normally commute to work to walk the dog or take a run. Or buy some basic gym equipment and do a rapid workout before you start your day or on your designated lunch break (schedule that in – remember routine is important).
This focus on physical health will also help protect mental health, which, given lawyers are known to experience high rates of depression and anxiety, is critical to be mindful of.
Remember: You’re still part of a team
It’s easy to become disconnected from your colleagues if you WFH, but you can maintain relationships, even at a physical distance.
From Slack to Zoom to the Google collaboration tools, tech has provided a plethora of ways to remain connected and continue working with colleagues, and as WFH becomes more and more the norm, these tools will continue to develop.
But on top of this, what’s to stop you from meeting a colleague for a walk or coffee if they live close enough for you to do this? Not only will this get you up and out for an hour, but it will also offer you that bit of real contact you might be craving.
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