Pandemic impacts on conveyancers’ mental health

Today’s Conveyancer wanted to mark and recognise World Mental Health Day today (10th October) to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health and well-being in the conveyancing sector and legal industry as a whole.

Mental health has been endemic in the legal profession for some time, and the well-being of practitioners is especially important right now, in the world we live in, with not only pressure from professional working lives but also personal too.

It goes without saying that working as a legal professional can be very stressful, with never-ending workloads and emotionally complex challenging cases, and off course, the added stress of a pandemic added to the mix too.

At the beginning of 2019, Legal Mental Health Charity, LawCare, reported receiving their highest ever number of helpline calls from solicitors in 2018. An even more concerning statistic was that calls from solicitors complaining about bullying and harassment had nearly doubled in 2018.

Since then, LawCare have been tackling the issue of mental health across the industry. Last year they launched a new advocacy scheme ‘LawCare Champions’, which aims to appoint legal professionals in the UK to act as mental health and wellbeing advocates within the legal community.

Fourteen champions were appointed in 2019 which was a huge asset helping spread the word about LawCare and the importance of good mental health and wellbeing amongst the legal community. Since then, LawCare’s champions have evolved over the last 12 months and they have reported this week that they now have 37 champions in total.

Since 10th March 2020, LawCare have been monitoring calls and have reported 28 per cent of all support contacts, including calls, webchats and emails, have had a covid element. This represents 154 out of 544 contacts since the pandemic started.

The mains issues that practitioners have been contacting Lawcare about are worsening of existing mental issues, not being permitted to work from home/not wanting to return to work after furlough, overloaded with work due to colleagues being furloughed, Struggling to adapt working from home and emotional distress due to isolation/boredom.

This month, LawCare also launched a ground-breaking research study ‘Life In The Law’ ahead of World Mental Health Day too.

Elizabeth Rimmer, Chief Executive of LawCare said:

“As World Mental Health Day approaches we continue to be concerned about the emotional and financial impact of the pandemic. We would like to remind all legal professionals, including support staff, they can contact us for free, in confidence, to discuss anything that is bothering them. Talking through your problems with one of our trained staff and volunteers, who have all worked in the law themselves, can really help.”

With the many changes over the last 6 months or so, we asked organisations and practitioners what impact the new work culture and working practices has had on them personally and what
measures/changes/support have been put in place to build a positive mental well-being culture in their firm/organisation.

Stephen Ward, Director of Strategy and External Relations at Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) comments on the impact of the pandemic. He said:

“CLC-regulated firms tell us they fear that the real impact of the pandemic may not be felt until after the end of the current SDLT holiday, in quarters 2 and 3 of 2021. Yet of course we know that lockdown, furlough and low activity followed by what is now an extremely busy period for many conveyancers have placed us all under significant stress. Many of us have enjoyed aspects of remote working, but others can feel isolated and unsupported in what are by any measure very challenging circumstances. As a partner in LawCare, the CLC urges conveyancers to make use of the excellent services offered and remember that the CLC is here to provide practical advice if managers fear they may be getting into business difficulties.”

Lloyd Davies, Managing Director at Convey Law (and Conveyancing Association member (CA)) confirms it is ‘business as usual’ but outlines the changes made and impact on the firm following the pandemic. He said:

“Convey Law are no longer accepting visitors to our offices in accordance with Coronavirus Government guidelines however we are business as usual in terms of day-to-day team activities.

“When the initial changes came into effect, we conducted a staff survey which suggested that over 70% of staff wanted the opportunity to work from home and to have more flexibility around working hours. Our technology has allowed us the capability to facilitate this and now many of our experienced conveyancers work from home in a highly effective, diligent manner.

“These measures have ensured the safety of our staff and allowed us to continue to provide customer service to our usual high standards.

“Due to these measures, we have avoided any break in our service levels and have built on our previous capacity.”

The wellbeing of employees is paramount to the firm. Lloyd added: 

“Our staff welfare programme is so important. We have a great, understanding HR and Management team who are empathetic to individual circumstances. As a company we understand that people have families and different priorities in their lives, even though they are highly professional individuals. It is not all about work all of the time.

“We have found that our in-house counselling service has been enormously powerful in assisting and retaining staff. It is often during times of high pressure, when there is a lot of work going on that anxieties come out. We have found professional counselling can assist in this respect and we have had positive feedback from the team in regards to this service.”

Lloyd Davies has previously created a video on workplace wellbeing titled: Taking Care of your staff and growing your own business’ .

Video highlights include:

  • Importance of staff to grow your business – often the most difficult process to growing a business – good, well trained professionals.
  • Staff benefits all-important – working from home – holidays – excellent training.
  • Staff welfare programmes – good HR team – understanding management and counselling – in house provisions.
  • Training – recruit and retain new staff – train into conveyancing fee earners within three to six months.

Mike Leeman, Managing Partner at Bell Lamb & Joynson and CA member talks about the changes made in the firm, encouraging an ’empathetic approach’. He said:

“It goes without saying that the last six months have been full of change for people both in the workplace and in their personal lives too. In fact, working from home blurs those boundaries even further. With that in mind, we’ve encouraged an empathetic approach to work culture as people at every level of the business now share common issues and concerns, and we’ve had to work as a team to make the most of new opportunities that have enabled us to thrive in difficult times.

“People have had to adjust personally and professionally so, first and foremost, it is about being there for each other. We have always had a great family ethos at Bell Lamb & Joynson Solicitors with many of our colleagues having been with the practice for a number of years. As a result, working relationships are strong and we have been fortunate to form a real bond and a sense of comradery that has carried us through.

“When it comes to our workplace culture, we have always used technology to support colleagues and clients and it’s something that we invested heavily in even before the pandemic hit. Using digital processes over the years has allowed us to encourage more flexible and modern ways of working that help our staff achieve a better work/life balance. During lockdown, colleagues were all working from home, but as we are very agile this was no big task for us – we have laptops available for remote working and processes in place to ensure output and morale doesn’t suffer.”

A positive mental well-being culture had been crafted at the firm. Mike added:  

“We’ve always championed positive mental well-being throughout our workplace culture, and we’ve been especially mindful to implement new measures and support initiatives during what is arguably one of the biggest periods of adjustment in our lifetime.

“We introduced a regular firm-wide call at the end of the week which saw different people hosting quizzes to keep that social aspect of the workplace alive in a virtual setting. It’s important to remember that for many employees it’s not just about enabling them to get the work done efficiently at home in these new circumstances, but an office environment is traditionally a social environment too, and that loss of face-to-face interaction can really impact morale and confidence if not managed correctly.

“Each department did things slightly differently, for example, our conveyancing team introduced twice daily calls to check-in with colleagues. This involved looking at workloads and any particular cases that individuals wanted to discuss. Staff were encouraged to video call their teammates about clients and cases rather than e-mail or phone them, and really take time to check-in with each other on a human level. We’ve been using Microsoft Teams to hold training and aid communication across locations and departments for a number of years now, but it really has been invaluable since lockdown began back in March.

“We had a number of new starters join us during lockdown, so we had to move to a virtual induction process. This seems to have gone down well and feedback from one recruit even suggested that it was less daunting with the ability to see people’s names on Microsoft Teams.

“We already use things like Perk Box/Employee of the Month as incentives across the firm, but these have taken a greater focus in recent months. We have done surveys to check in with everyone and see how we can expand our support provisions, even starting a pilot ‘You Said, We Did’ scheme to make things even better for our colleagues.”

Dawn Hillman, Head of Human Resources at Dutton Gregory Solicitors discusses the challenges and impact on the firm. She said:

“Our working lives have been changing for a while now – but over the course of a few weeks, the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic led to massive change, uncertainty, and new challenges for many of us as almost everything about the way we worked and lived changed.

“The present-day working environment has transformed. With many of us still working from home (even just a couple of days a week) our work and life worlds have collided. We have been through our best attempts of home schooling, trying to work from home at the same time as our spouse/partner with constant interruptions, and kids wandering in to ask something in the middle of a conference call.

“Most of us will be able to relate to some of these challenges as the blurring of boundaries has created considerable challenges for our home-life balance.

“Law is certainly a high-intensity profession and never has there been a time where the employer’s role in supporting staff’s mental health and wellbeing has been more important.

“At Dutton Gregory we have an environment of transparency and open communication, where we encourage our employees to open up and feel comfortable about discussing and dealing with personal issues. Our mental health first-aiders run confidential drop-in sessions where our employees are encouraged to speak openly, and we have set up a Wellness Action Group to raise awareness and promote and support good mental health and wellbeing in our firm.

“It is important to have a culture of connectivity and communication where our employees have the emotional support to grow and improve.

“We have also looked at the positive effects of home working, such as having more honest and candid conversations around work-life balance and how the two can work well together to enable our employees to do their best work, and we continue to support those that wish to work from home.

“One of the key challenges for businesses now is maintaining and strengthening the company’s culture. Leaders have become even more important in shaping employee perception and engagement and must continue to support their teams as they contend with the unprecedented challenges and continuously changing conditions presented by the pandemic.

“The fast-paced culture of the legal profession of working hard, meeting tight deadlines, managing work relationships and staying connected means that the focus on a resilient and healthy workforce has never been more important and is, perhaps, even more relevant today.”

For further information visit LawCare’s website www.lawcare.org.uk and helpline 0800 279 6888 and email [email protected]

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