I recently spoke to RPCs Ed FitzGerald on a subject close to my heart: mental health. The three things that particularly chimed with me throughout our conversation were the need we all have for community in our working life; the importance of law firms collaborating with clients if they are to address unhealthy working practices; and the truism that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect anyone.
“You can’t parcel people up into boxes when dealing with mental health. This is why firms need to offer a variety of mental wellbeing initiatives, as different people engage in different ways and have different needs”, Ed explains. Indeed, it seems that RPC have done just that over the last couple of years, from offering counselling sessions to all staff across the firm with a clinical psychologist from Hello Self, to training specialist mental health first aiders. Are these good initiatives being used? And who within the firm is using them? Ed explained that take-up over the last couple of years has grown consistently, with large numbers of people across the firm taking advantage of them enthusiastically. Importantly, all levels of seniority use the support available, which promotes an important point that even the most successful professionals have issues with mental health from time to time. Old stigmas are thankfully fading, (ie that mental health issues are for the mentally weak), and are being replaced with a much healthier attitude that the mind, like the body, needs care … and fixing from time to time.
Without the buy-in and support of clients, firms can only progress so far in promoting healthy working practices, such as calling time on a long hours culture. This is why the Mindful Business Charter is such a unique and brilliant initiative. RPC have recently signed up to the Charter and I was keen to ask Ed all about it. “The Charter is based on the idea that true cultural change is most effective when clients and firms work together and have the same expectations. It recognises that one of a law firm's greatest commodities, ‘brain power’, needs taking care of, which means firms and clients alike have a vested interest in avoiding burnout.” As one big bank GC famously put it, “If I’m paying top dollar for a lawyer’s clever thinking, I want to know I’m getting the best of their brainpower. A strung-out, stressed professional is of no value to me.”
Ed outlined that RPC were thoroughly supportive of the Charter and “are currently working internally with each team as to how to implement it meaningfully”. He believes the number of firms committing to the Charter tells a positive story, that real, long-term change is starting to happen in the legal sector.
“Sense of community” is a recurring phrase used by Ed throughout our conversation, as he sees it as a key part of fostering mental wellness. Of course, it’s a commodity we are all valuing more than ever this year, thanks to our Lockdown experiences…and it’s captured perfectly in John Lewis’ new Christmas advert. Whilst ‘sense of community’ is nothing new to RPC, (its culture is rooted in this), Ed admits that the firm has had to work harder to ensure people maintained their feeling of community during lockdown and sustained periods of working from home. This is not a unique challenge with many companies having to get inventive to keep that spirit going – albeit virtually. For RPC, Ed explains that they’ve been “running creative projects to keep people connected, from coffee roulette to exercise challenges on Strava" to, see how far people can run, walk, cycle or swim during lockdown, with the added benefit of encouraging people to leave their desks and get physically active. “We wanted to make sure people still felt that sense of collective purpose which comes with working at RPC. It’s important for everyone to maintain their presence within our community,” he says.
I asked Ed if one of the positives coming out of Covid-19 was a greater awareness and compassion for mental health and whether the sector would keep the conversation going post-pandemic. His response was interesting:
“Without a doubt, awareness of mental health issues has increased during this year with more conversations taking place to ensure people are being looked out for and the right level of support is being provided. This is a conversation that needs to happen a lot more across all sectors – and society in general – during normal times. There is a greater need for compassion and to be more accepting of people’s individual circumstances and the challenges they might be facing in their personal lives.”
Our conversation inevitably turned to the future, to which Ed hopes that the “conversation around mental health continues until it becomes part of everyday discourse and that people are as comfortable talking about it and seeking treatment for it in the same way they are for physical issues”. Now, I’m sure this is a sentiment we can all get on board with, so take five minutes out to ask a colleague, a friend or a family member “Are you OK?” and keep that conversation going.