We’ve all heard the saying “no pain no gain.” Whether you are attempting to get your body “beach ready” for summer or studying for that last big exam, pushing yourself extra hard for a short amount of time can clearly pay off. Few would argue, however, that living by this mantra for the whole of your working life is a healthy option. In fact, it could mean serious implications for both your physical and mental health.
Mental health awareness has grown dramatically over the past few years, much of this is as a result of campaigning and charity work—often involving high profile people such as film and TV stars, sports personalities and even members of the Royal Family. And in 2017, the government commissioned an independent review into how employers could better support the mental health of their employees. The results were alarming: high numbers of employees were struggling with work related mental health issues. This then undoubtedly resulted in an increase of absenteeism, presenteeism and a fall in productivity.
For those who choose a career in law, it goes without saying that they will face their fair share of stress and pressure. For many, the hours can be long, clients demanding and targets relentless. With an industry built on the billable hour model it is clear firms are going to need their lawyers to continue to bill their hours to ensure profitability. However, given the fact that work is documented as the number one cause of stress in the UK, it is clear that something has to give.
Back in 2014 we saw what should have been a major game changer in the work place. This was the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees. Previously, working from home or having a shorter working week was generally viewed as a privilege for working mums. However, it was anticipated that post May 2014 this would level the playing field and would surely go some way to ease the stress levels of those employed. Sadly, the desired effect has not been widespread enough and the playing field of the legal industry is anything but level.
Many candidates I work with have nervously posed the question of flexible working to a law firm, often without much hope of success. If these fears turn out to be the reality, rather than challenging a rejected request, many fold at the first hurdle. Similarly, there are those who see little point in even broaching the question at all. Those without childcare responsibilities feel they would struggle to justify flexible working arrangements; others are concerned that it will affect their chances of progression. Unfortunately the “jacket on chair” culture of the legal profession seems to be one where long hours in the office are seen as a sign of commitment, and pulling an all-nighter is a badge of honour. Given the technological advances over recent years there is no reason whatsoever why a solicitor’s job cannot be completed to the same standard at home as it is in the office. The real issue, I think, is the stigma attached to flexible working and this needs to be addressed. Perhaps once this is dismantled we will then see a reduction in the levels of work related stress being reported.
Looking at it from the employer’s point of view, however, it seems like a daunting proposition—the idea of trying to implement a firm-wide flexibility policy. For that reason they may have let the idea slip by the wayside, opting for the easier status quo. So what could those law firms lagging behind do to catch up? The key to home working is in its implementation. Getting the technology right is the first step. Investigate the technology needed to ensure employees are connected and audible and visible to the office when required. While this can be expensive it should perhaps be viewed as a short term outlay for a long term gain.
Next, test the waters. Invite a cross section of the firm to work from home for a trial period. During which, measure factors such as productivity and absenteeism to establish whether there is a discernible improvement or decline. Ask those involved in the trial how they felt it impacted their productivity and work life balance and take this into account when deciding whether to make this a long term policy across the business.
It would, however, be completely remiss and unfair of me not to mention the many firms out there that are doing a sterling job of implementing flexible working policies to all employees, irrespective of their caregiving responsibilities. Without a doubt many firms, particularly large nationals and commercial firms, have successfully rolled out flexible working and are reaping many rewards. Most have reported a fall in absenteeism, greater access to outstanding candidates when they come to recruit, greater employee engagement, loyalty and retention. Moreover, few would be inclined to revoke their policies. It seems such a shame that more firms haven’t followed suit yet and found a way to empower their lawyers to manage their own workloads and deadlines at home just as they would in the office.
So must we bleed to succeed? Obviously the answer is a resounding no! There is now far too much research and data out there confirming the many positives properly and inclusively implemented flexible working policies can bring to both employers and employees alike. For those limping along at firms who refuse to offer it, you have options. You can either suffer in silence or advance your career with the more progressive firms that have seen the light. I do wish I could confidently confirm that all the law firms I work with offer flexible working, but I am happy to say the numbers are slowly increasing. In candidate short times such as these, many of the savvier law firms are using these well-thought-out flexible working policies as an effective tool in their recruitment strategy—and so far they seem to be winning.
So if you are struggling with a commute or just feel you could would work more productively outside the office for any reason really, it might be worth getting in touch with us to talk about whether there are options out there that could put you on the winning side too.
Claire has more than 10 years of experience in legal recruitment, as well as a background as a lawyer. She recruits across all practice areas for Paralegals, Legal Executives and Solicitors throughout the North of England and is based in our Manchester office.
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