Karen Jackson, director of didlaw, writes for Propero Partners about Mental Health Awareness Week (8 – 12 May). Karen praises the professional service firms doing their part to improve the mental health of its workforce, while also addressing the issues the industry is currently facing.

Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity for us all to evaluate the part we play in both our own mental health and that of the people around us. Employers have an opportunity to make a real difference and drive change in how we talk about mental health, simply because of the amount of time the average individual spends at work.

A report I read recently – A little more conversation – published by the Institute of Directors (IoD), found that 54% of employers have been approached by members of their staff suffering from ill mental health.

As employers, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to deal with mental health in the workplace, BUT creating an environment where employees feel empowered to seek help and are comfortable enough to ask for support is crucial.

The professional services industry has some of the toughest challenges to overcome because of its historically traditionalist views on mental health. The expectations set by many managers and the high-pressure nature of the industry mean that often individuals feel like admitting to struggling with mental health is a form of weakness. So, conversations about recovery are swept under the rug, leaving the individual to cope on their own, leave their job or take sick leave. In fact, according to official statistics, 127 million hours of work were lost in 2015 due to absences relating to mental health.

So, what are professional service firms doing about it?

Herbert Smith Freehills’ dispute resolution partner, Ian Gatt, has been championing the firm’s wellbeing programme for over seven years now. The programme offers training, awareness seminars with a psychoanalyst and interactive role-play scenarios for all its employees. The firm is also looking to branch into mindfulness training and meditation sessions soon.

Nomura, a leading financial services firm, is not only pioneering workplace initiatives but also research into workplace mental health. With studies showing that nature has a positive effect on happiness, productivity, creativity and collaboration, Nomura designed its workspace with as much access to green space as possible. It has also fitted the office building with large glass windows as well as a roof terrace and garden for its employees.

What MORE is left to do?

Although a good proportion of the top firms are embracing the necessity of mental health initiatives internally, there’s still an industry-wide cultural issue which is stopping some firms talking openly about mental health. It won’t be until the individuals at the top of the professional services industry speak up and publicly address the issues head on, that we’ll start to see real, positive change trickle down to the smaller firms.

The truth is, smaller firms are unlikely to be able to offer the mental health programmes larger firms can. Many larger firms tend to have a wellbeing budget, a more comprehensive HR team and the resources to support wellbeing programmes that smaller firms don’t. However, by recognising and normalising mental health, we should start to see a slow but sure shift in attitude towards those suffering – something that even the smallest businesses can get onboard with.

Although a change in attitude toward mental health is necessary, it will take time, especially in typically closed off industries like the professional services. To ensure it happens, firms need to be more open with discussing mental health, take measures to reduce unnecessary stress and have the appropriate measures in place to support those who are struggling.

We’re all happy to talk about cuts and scrapes, headaches or the flu, but when it comes to mental health, we clam up. I hope for a time where we feel like we can talk about mental health in the same way we do physical health. This is a little way off, but I do see a twinkle of a promising and a conscious strive for change starting to happen that was not there a decade ago.

– Karen Jackson, director of didlaw, a law firm specialising in discrimination around disability, work-related stress and workplace health issues.

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