Mental health and wellbeing best practice discussed in latest Conveyancing Foundation webinar

Companies in the legal, property and conveyancing sectors who have all been commended for their work in boosting wellbeing and supporting mental health have been sharing best practice with The Conveyancing Foundation.

In the Foundation’s second major webinar as part of its groundbreaking ‘Be Kind We Care’ initiative, the charity welcomed six speakers including Richard Carter, the Managing Partner of Martin Tolhurst, the legal practice which scooped the award for Mental Health and Conveyancing Firm of the Year at the British Conveyancing Awards, and Angelo Piccirillo, Co-founder of AVRillo, and Lloyd Davies, Managing Director of Convey Law.

AVRillo and Convey Law were both highly commended for mental health initiatives at the awards earlier this year.

Introducing the speakers, Georgia Davies from The Conveyancing Foundation said the launch of Be Kind We Care to encourage kindness to fellow professionals had been triggered by the pandemic and Stamp Duty holiday but its principles were continually relevant.

“We were desperate to promote mental health and wellbeing in the legal, property and conveyancing sectors and also provide the best practical guidance. Our first webinar focused on stress management tips and now we would like to share best practice from organisations who are trying to promote mental health and wellbeing,”

she said.

David Opie of Today’s Media the publishers of Today’s Conveyancer, who supported the Be Kind We Care initiative by launching regular mental health surveys and a Respecting Kindness pledge, said 60% of respondents to their initial survey described working within the conveyancing industry over the last 18 months as “having a significant effect on their mental health”.

Mr Opie also said that 49% of those surveyed had seen people leave the industry because of mental health but there were signs businesses were starting to prioritise mental health:

“75% of law firms or respondents to the survey said their companies had engaged with Mental Health Awareness Week. It is heartening to see that legal practices are engaging.”

Lloyd Davies, also Chairman of the Conveyancing Foundation, said Convey Law had introduced a one-to-one confidential counselling service to the workplace three years’ ago which had been very successful.

He added:

“It is alright to say ‘I am struggling a bit and I need help’. Problems are not always capacity and work pressure related. People have individual problems which are often deep-rooted such as anxiety and it helps to discuss these wider problems confidentially. Employers are not trained to help with them. We have found a professional coming in or being available on Zoom has worked wonders.”

Lloyd explained staff workloads were carefully monitored to avoid pressures triggered by work and flexible hours had also been introduced and “very well received” with Convey Law now also looking at mental health first aiders and mental health checks for all employees to prevent potential issues

However, he said he believed the most important thing for businesses to do was to “engender a culture that it is OK to talk”, explaining:

“We are trying to develop that culture that we are here for our staff and that our staff understand that we really care about their wellbeing. That’s really important.”

At Martin Tolhurst, Richard Carter said a twin approach of informal Mental Health Champions throughout the firm’s five locations combined with a professional healthcare service which gave staff access not only to physical healthcare but also to mental health counselling, costing around £11 per member of staff per month, worked very well.

He said:

“About 3-4 years ago, we became more aware of issues facing our people from outside work and affecting their daily lives and we decided to go down the mental first aiders route.”

The company asked for volunteers and now has around one trained Mental Health Champion for every ten people at the practice.

He explained:

“In the main, they tend not to be partners because people don’t necessarily want to talk to their line managers about mental health. Also, staff do not have to approach a Mental Health Champion in their own office if they don’t want to.

“Obviously, the service is confidential but from our quarterly meet-ups, we do know that some champions are talking to 2-3 people a week and usually have around 10-12 in their ‘flock’. The over 35s are less likely to come forward but it does flow when they do as they may have bottled things up, while the under 35s are more likely to talk.”

In addition, the private healthcare provided meant staff could have access to next day counselling if they approached them for help, explained Mr Carter.

He added:

“As an employer, we are providing something which is appreciated and valued and you can see the rewards.”

Angelo Piccirillo, Co-founder of AVRillo, based in Enfield, north London, said mental health “has been overlooked for many years” and his business was set up on the principles of a work-life balance.

“All senior staff, who go to be partners, are trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro-linguistic programming and counselling techniques,”

he added.

Mr Piccirillo said the firm immediately reduced workloads and “took less profit” during the stamp duty holiday and took steps to ensure staff wellbeing including “talking to every single member of our team at least once a week on a private basis and a weekly open wellbeing talk”.

He said:

“Our team comes first above anything including profits and clients. If our team suffers, it means we have to reduce our work and reduce our profits. We all go through the same thing and most people suffer to some degree with mental health issues.

“Our policies bonded the practice and made people less alone with remote working – we went from 5% home working to 95% working from home. We now spend around 200k a year on infrastructure to make sure that remote working from home actually works for everyone.”

At Paramount Properties in north west London, Operations Director Reagan Bradley said that the estate agent and property letting business was probably “a perfect storm for poor mental health even before the pandemic” with “people working traditionally in most agencies long hours, six days a week, low salaries, worrying about commission coming in, not taking enough holiday and not going home when they’re sick because they are worried about what’s coming in, it’s fast paced and it’s traditionally male so people don’t speak.”

She said Paramount which “had always tried to combat that traditional view of estate agents” had moved to “a completely flexi model over the last 12-18 months” where the team was empowered to operate in the way it best suited them “forgetting the idea of a work-life balance and making it all about life”.

Holiday allowances have been abolished and a sickness policy has been introduced where no-one comes into the office if they are feeling ill, she explained.

“Our solution for most of this has been about freedom and individuality. We just operate in the spaces we need to when we need to. We have got rid of holiday allowances because our team are adults and can police themselves,” she said.

“They know what they need to produce and that’s what we are looking at. We are also trying to break the stigma around sickness. If you just don’t feel 100% today, you don’t have to explain it because you’re an adult and you can work from home.”

Paramount have also attempted to reduce stress on staff by moving to “a pooled sales commission approach”.

Reagan Bradley explained:

“We have done this so no-one is struggling with that individual feeling of whether they will make enough money in the month. That has been eradicated and the teams are tighter. That competitive streak that so often can be detrimental has gone and we are trying to get to know each other as people much more.”

Paramount has also taken proactive steps to boost wellbeing by launching a ‘Happy Place’ Instagram-style internal communication channel for staff to share pictures, a buddy system to ensure staff keep an eye on each other and ‘Get Moving’ grants to encourage physical activity.

Ms Bradley said:

“We are trialling and perfecting Get Moving grants where staff can apply to us if they need funds. By helping to promote physical health, we hope it will pay off with mental wellbeing.”

At Lloyds Bank, Mental Health Lead Martin Roberts said that the pandemic meant they had to learn to do things differently rather than assuming what people needed and learn how to support colleagues remotely.

Lockdown innovations included a daily 15 minute online mindfulness session which was originally attended by 3 people and is now regularly attended by 250 staff every day, said Mr Roberts.

Colleagues were encouraged “to share their personal stories” at online wellbeing masterclasses with the company working hard to develop “a safe psychological environment”.

“Colleagues’ stories are so powerful. For the first time, we were able to see people’s vulnerabilities. It used to be said that you left your personal life at the front door when you went to work but, for the last 16 months, that has been impossible,”

he explained.

“Also, I wanted to turn on its head that old adage that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’. No, it’s not OK. We need to listen, act differently and put things in place to support the teams.”

Mr Roberts said it was crucial to share best practice as “mental health is inclusive not exclusive” and also advised other companies looking at supporting their staff’s mental health that “it does not need a lot of money. It can be done in small steps and then those small steps become big strides.”

 

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