Elizabeth Rimmer: Risks to mental health in the workplace – what are they and how to manage them
It is World Mental Health Day on 10 October: an opportunity to raise awareness and campaign for change. This year we want to highlight the responsibilities of employers to create mentally healthy workplaces., writes LawCare’s Elizabeth Rimmer.
The traditional view of health and safety in the workplace is evolving to include the risks to mental health in workplaces and a recognition that these need to actively managed. In the legal profession the focus of managing mental health at work has generally been on supporting individuals to cope with the pressures of a career in the law by building their resilience, providing education and access to external support. Although this can be beneficial, workplaces need to go wider and look at their organisational culture and working practices and consider their responsibilities to ensure that they create an environment which supports psychological safety and mental health.
What are psychosocial risks?
Risks to mental health at work, also known as psychosocial risks, are a broad range of factors relating to the workplace and working that can cause psychological harm and can come from:
- Work management or design
- The work environment
- Workplace relationships and social interactions
The World Health Organization has identified common risks to mental health at work (Guidelines on mental health at work) and those that are relevant to the legal sector include:
- Excessive workloads
- Long, unsocial, or inflexible hours
- Lack of control over workload or job design
- Organisational culture that enables negative behaviours
- Poor workplace relationships
- Limited support from colleagues, poor management, or authoritarian supervision
- Harassment, sexual harassment or bullying
- Discrimination and exclusion
- Unclear job role and expectations
- Low reward and recognition, poor investment in career development
- Conflicting home/work demands
- Isolated or remote working
- Exposure to traumatic events
How does exposure to psychosocial risk cause harm?
Some of these risk factors, such as exposure to traumatic events, have the potential to directly cause harm. Legal professionals working in family, criminal, immigration, or crime may develop vicarious trauma because of exposure to the trauma experienced by their clients.
However, for most people, it is a combination of exposure to psychosocial risks at work which can undermine their mental health and lead to anxiety, stress, burnout, or depression.
The legal workplace is characterised by inherent psychosocial risks - working long hours, poor work life balance, meeting the expectations of demanding clients, heavy caseloads, the pressure of deadlines and billing targets, whilst maintaining high standards of ethical and professional conduct.
This is evidenced by our Life in the Law Study published in 2021, which showed that legal professionals were at high risk of burnout associated with a high workload, working long hours and a psychologically unsafe working environment, and 20 per cent reported being bullied, harassed, or discriminated against.
How can legal workplaces manage psychosocial risk?
The tendency in legal workplaces is to respond to people with work related mental health conditions, once the problem has arisen; the goal should be to prevent work related mental health conditions developing in the first place. Actively managing psychosocial risks is the key to prevention. Employers should assess and identify the workplace risks to mental health, identify who may be exposed to these and which groups may be at particular risk, then take steps to mitigate, modify or remove these risks and monitor the impact these steps have had. Managing psychosocial risks should be embedded in the organisational risk management system.
Practical steps to mitigate risks
Start with a strategic review of your organisational culture. Consult with colleagues about their perspectives on this, find out if they feel they work in an environment that fosters trust, respect, and psychological safety where they can speak up about their mental health and work-related concerns. If they don’t, consider and take the steps needed to address this, in particular the role of leaders in demonstrating their commitment to a positive workplace culture and capacity for change.
Although it may seem challenging to implement measures to manage the psychosocial risks in legal workplaces, there are some practical steps that employers can take such as:
- Invest in management training so that those with responsibility for others have the skills and capacity to do this effectively
- Ensure staff have the support they need – regular 1:1 catch ups with their manager or supervisor and participation in relevant mentoring and peer support schemes
- Monitor and manage workloads and ensure staff and teams are adequately resourced
- Check in regularly with staff working remotely
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy to bullying, harassment and discrimination
- Address poor workplace relationships or conflict
- Support staff to work healthy hours, take breaks and their holiday entitlement
- Ensure transparent processes for work allocation, reward, and career progression
- For those exposed to traumatic events or materials, provide education, support and training
- Provide flexible working arrangements e.g., working from home or flexible hours to allow more time for responsibilities outside work and for activities that support mental wellbeing.
Adopting a proactive approach to managing psychosocial risks supports an engaged, productive, and inclusive workplace which enables people to thrive.
Elizabeth Rimmer is CEO of LawCare