What Law Firms Can Do to Avoid Lawyer Burnout: The Case for Flexible Working Policies

But a recent report from PwC, What Workers Want: Winning the War for Talent, suggests something slightly different: JobKeeper gave Australians some stability in...

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But a recent report from PwC, What Workers Want: Winning the War for Talent, suggests something slightly different: JobKeeper gave Australians some stability in the most uncertain times, but due to decreases in immigration, increased sick days, and other factors, many employers are now struggling to attract and retain talent. Coupled with the finding that 38% of Australian workers are planning on changing jobs in the next 12 months, it’s starting to look like the Great Resignation didn’t pass us by, but rather we’re on the brink of it.

So what’s causing so many people to consider such a big change? For an increasingly high number of people, it’s burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases in May 2019, it seems everyone is talking about it – but what is burnout? The WHO definition is simple: burnout is a result of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. The WHO considers burnout an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition.

For law firms, which have historically been high pressure work environments, it’s something that should be given serious attention. Think tank Infinite Potential, which runs an annual burnout study, warns that leaders shouldn’t attribute burnout to individuals’ circumstances, but should approach it as an organisational issue. Their 2021 study found that employees are seeking structural and cultural shifts – and law firms looking to retain talent in the wake of the pandemic should take note of this.

What Can Law Firms Do to Prevent Lawyer Burnout?

So what actions can you take if you’re looking to prevent and mitigate burnout in your law firm? A joint Deloitte and Swinburne University of Technology study released in June provides some answers, and it’s surprisingly straightforward: most Australian workers see increased flexibility as the solution to improving their work-life balance. The study found strong links between work-life balance and improved wellbeing, suggesting that for organisations looking to make real, structural change to address burnout, updating workplace flexibility policies would be a good place to start.

Having the right practice management tools in place is central to successfully implementing flexible working policies. LawMaster supports easy remote working and provides a single source of truth for matters so it’s simple to work asynchronously. Employees increasingly expect their workplace to have technology that enables their wellbeing, so as you update your policies, you should also consider whether your existing practice management technology can support more flexible working arrangements.

The Deloitte study found that wellbeing was as important as remuneration for Australian workers, and for Gen Z workers, work-life balance was actually more important than salary – so for law firms wanting to future-proof, policies and technology that support workplace wellbeing will be imperative.

Which Flexible Policies Should Your Firm Implement?

It’s important to engage with your team to find out what policy changes would best support their wellbeing. Your firm’s employee value proposition should reflect the needs of your workforce, but PwC found there was a significant disconnect between what employees want, and what executives and decision-makers believe they want. Engaging with your employees will give you insight into what is important to them when it comes to flexibility and ensure that the policies you put in place have the desired impact.

At LawMaster, we know firsthand the impact these steps can have on employee wellbeing. In response to the challenges of the pandemic, we recently held a company-wide survey, and we’ve made some changes to how we work to better support our own team’s work-life balance. LawMaster now has a hybrid working policy that gives our team the option to work from home two days per week, and an Employee Assistance Program. By engaging with all employees, we ensured that the changes implemented supported our team in the ways that best suited their needs.

While concerns have been expressed by some about the negative impact of work from home policies on junior lawyers, it’s worth noting that workplace flexibility isn’t one size fits all, and there are a number of flexible working arrangements that may be right for your firm. While for some, more time spent working from home will certainly be preferable, increased flexibility might also look like offering time off in lieu instead of overtime, adopting flexible working hours for on-site workers, or even a four-day work week.

There may also be other changes you can make in your firm to make these policies more practical. Having the right practice management technology can empower your team to minimise administrative work, automate repetitive tasks, and streamline their working day. Independent legal analysts have confirmed that LawMaster can increase the performance and productivity of law firms by at least 30%. For your team, that could be the difference between long hours of overtime and leaving the office on time every day.

Find out about our Needs Based Analysis.

 

What Should You Do if You’re a Lawyer Experiencing Burnout?

If you’ve come across this article because you’re currently experiencing burnout, you’re not alone. In the fourth quarter of 2021, 17% of Australian workers took leave for mental health reasons. While burnout is generally acknowledged to be an organisational issue, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to manage it on an individual level. Help is available.

If you feel comfortable doing so, speak with your manager about your workload and let them know how you’re feeling. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program, consider booking an appointment – these programs are confidential and usually provide a set number of counselling sessions at no charge to you. They can then refer you to longer term mental health support if you need it.

Outside of the workplace, Beyond Blue offers online and phone services, and your GP can support you with a mental health treatment plan. There are also specialist services, like Support for Lawyers, that are tailored to the needs of legal professionals.

 

With the legal profession experiencing high rates of mental health challenges even prior to COVID, the added pressure of the pandemic has made it clear that burnout isn’t an issue that law firms can ignore. For firms that want to attract and retain talent it makes good business sense to ensure that your employee value proposition reflects this through flexible workplace policies that prioritise employee wellbeing, and that you have the technology in place to support your team.