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Workplace mental health programs can only be effective when they include cultural change and positive leadership role modelling.

In recent years workplace mental health programs have come to the fore as employers have begun to recognise the direct link between mental health, professional outcomes and corporate success. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the emerging evidence. For instance, as recently as July 2022, the ABS released a set of sobering statistics indicating that over 2 in 5 adult Australians (43.7 per cent) experience a mental disorder in their lifetime. When we examine how this impacts the workplace, we find a plethora of issues such as reduced productivity, disengagement, increased absenteeism, staff turnover and increased compensation claims. The Black Dog Institute notes that conditions like depression and anxiety are costing Australian businesses between $11 and $12 billion dollars each year, and that mental illness is now the leading cause of absence due to illness and long-term work incapacity in Australia.

Given the information we now have, it makes sense for workplaces to develop mental health programs, and indeed many have. While this is a welcome development, such programs often comprise one-off workshops only. Sessions of this kind do increase awareness of the impacts of the workplace on mental health, and can help to develop important skills, but when delivered in isolation their long-term impact is questionable. The reason is that managers and teams often emerge from such sessions with the greatest of intentions, but when these are not reinforced by the firm’s culture, or, even worse, are undermined by status quo practices,  behavioural change seems highly unlikely. Think of the lawyer who is required to attend a workshop promoting exercise and recreation as a way to enhance self-care and bolster resilience yet is regularly required to work well into the evenings and on weekends.

When mental health programs are not reinforced by the firm’s culture, or, even worse, are undermined by status quo practices, behavioural change seems highly unlikely.

With this in mind, leaders would be well advised to develop multi-faceted mental health programs that focus on overcoming systemic barriers to mental wellbeing within the firm. To be effective, programs of this kind should be based on the following four principles.

Assessing risk factors and health and safety policies

Most firms have a Work Health and Safety (WHS) policy in place. Some contain little or no reference to mental health or psychological risk factors, such as interpersonal conflict, blame culture, unreasonable demands, poor job design, high workload, low control over work factors by employees, and the like. The move to hybrid working has added a layer of complexity: it can be difficult to uncover risk factors when colleagues are less visible. SafeWork NSW has produced a Code of Practice for employers with responsibilities defined under the WHS Act wishing to identify and manage psychosocial hazards at work.

Rethinking role modelling

When leaders don’t display the values they espouse, they become ineffective role models. Think of the senior partner who speaks of collaboration but then makes unilateral decisions, or the GM who tells their staff that they are the firm’s greatest asset but then overloads them with work, or the practice leader who speaks of work–life balance but works themselves to the point of burnout. Leaders are well advised to observe their own behaviours (even if they don’t, their junior colleagues will!) and identify any that are at odds with the culture they are seeking to create within the firm.

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Creating positive mental health norms

There is strong evidence that addressing mental health issues early means recovery is more likely. To do so, the firm needs to create an environment where mental health is discussed openly via regular check-ins, discussions and information sharing sessions. Further, when a team member does report mental health concerns, these should be addressed by providing reasonable adjustments (as required by law). Examples include time off to attend appointments, modified working hours, job crafting, coaching, and mentoring.

Responses like these from leadership will send a positive message to the team.

Recognising team dynamics

Developing an awareness of the dynamics of your team will provide early insight into changes in behaviour, such as disengagement, reduced emotional control, fatigue and the like. Regular conversations will provide valuable information on how the team is travelling in terms of mental health, and create the opportunity to take effective, supportive action that engenders a climate of trust and safety.

In summary, for senior legal leaders wanting to make a change in the mental health climate of their firm, creating the right cultural environment is essential. Investing in educational programs is just part of the journey. The other part is normalising mental health by modelling healthy behaviours, talking about mental health, listening empathically, communicating well, bringing robust health and safety policies to life, and embracing the diversity of strengths and challenges that all teams naturally possess.