Wellbeing is a very hot topic in the legal professions at the moment with calls for change coming from many quarters. By far, the leader in heralding the need for change is LawCare whose unparalleled Life in the Law Report 2021 shone a much needed light on the serious issues affecting a significant number of individuals.

Seemingly as a consequence, the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA) consulted on changes to their rules last year and these are now awaiting approval from the Legal Services Board (LSB) over the next few months. These changes mean that SRA regulated firms will need to develop strategies, policies, and processes for managing wellbeing within their practices. It would not surprise us if the other regulators followed suit – whether of their own volition or persuasion from the LSB!

At Beyond Compliance, our research and training in wellbeing and mental health, led us to the self-determination theory (originally developed by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci in 1985) and individuals motivational needs, as well as the strong link that we see between them. Indeed, there are some high level pieces of research being undertaken on this topic right now.

The self-determination theory states that individuals are motivated by three needs: conceived autonomy; a sense of belonging; and competence. It further states that by attending to these three needs an individual’s motivation will increase, and that they will also be better able to deal with stress. So, could ensuring these three needs are satisfied be a good starting point when talking about wellbeing in the legal profession?

We think so, and we now want to share our thoughts on the foundation for our strategy of the ABC of wellbeing.

  • Autonomy:

Individual needs include the freedom to be autonomous and to be able to make independent decisions. When an individual feels they are autonomous, they feel trusted and respected by those around them. In other words, it gives them a sense of control. The feeling of trust is key to good mental health and individual wellbeing, due to the way trust and respect in turn help increase an individual’s sense of self-worth and motivation.  When individuals feel free to communicate openly and honestly this also helps to improve their mental health due to a sense of feeling valued and listened to by the people around them.

Autonomy also creates the freedom to make mistakes and to then learn from them, which is important for individuals’ growth and development. Human nature shows that we find it hard to learn without the opportunity to make our own mistakes and learn from them. When individuals can do this in a safe environment, it not only builds a sense of autonomy but also increases competence and builds trust and rapport as well.

Having a work environment, which ensures individuals have the freedom to make their own decisions, express opinions and grow and learn independently, is an important way to improve wellbeing. The Chartered Management Institution agrees that mental ill health is often negatively affected by poor work environments and management, usually including low levels of autonomy and support for workers. When individuals know they have autonomy on all levels, including communication, they feel able to freely voice their opinions and feel heard. Feeling trusted and listened to at work really matters to all individuals. It helps them to feel respected and valued.  Knowing their opinions do matter also makes them feel empowered over their day to day life within their work environment.

From an organisational perspective, when there are effective strategies, support and systems in place around mental health and wellbeing, individuals and teams are much more likely to be highly motivated and productive in their day to day work. Increasing productivity effectively and sustainably is what all businesses strive for. So, it stands to reason that if encouraging autonomy in the work place helps improve wellbeing, which in turn, increases motivation levels and productivity, organisations will also see significant benefits. A Mind resource confirms that research undertaken in 2013 showed how   FTSE 100 companies that prioritised employee wellbeing and mental health outperformed other FTSE 100 companies by 10%.

  • Belonging:

Individuals need to feel that they belong in some way, be that within a family, a friendship group, society – and particularly at work. As Mari Louhi-Lehtiö states in her work on motivation and self- determination, belonging is linked to building strong relationship and healthy group dynamics. Where strong relationships are built, people start to feel part of a group, they feel that they belong. This belonging and the development of positive relationships can help to prevent and also support mental ill health. In society it is widely accepted that loneliness can have negative effects on mental health, the 2022 Mental Health Awareness week actually had the theme of loneliness, in an attempt to raise awareness and encourage people to reach out to those that might be suffering from loneliness and offer them some company and support.  

Although belonging is important in all areas of life, it is especially important in terms of individuals’ professional lives due to the number of hours people spend at work. Many people spend more time at work than anywhere else, including at home with family and friends. This is particularly the case in the legal profession where long hours, heavy workloads, and pressurised deadlines have long been traditionally considered the norm.  Spending this amount of time in an environment where people don’t have positive relationships or feel that they belong can significantly increase stress levels and feelings of isolation, as well as reduce motivation and lead to low morale. In addition to having a negative effect on mental health, a lack of a sense of belonging can also significantly reduce productivity at work as individuals become disengaged and demotivated. Positive relationships in a work environment also increase an individual’s sense of being supported, which will generally improve their attitude towards the organisation and work.

There are untold organisational benefits that come with individuals feeling that they belong and have a positive attitude towards the organisation.  Individuals who feel they belong tend to have higher levels of loyalty to the company as well as their team members. This loyalty and sense of belonging leads to higher levels of stability, and lower worker turnover and absences. We all know that high levels of absence and turnover come with a large cost to business. From the cost of temporary workers, and the loss of productivity with people absence, to recruitment and training costs along with the time invested in getting new individuals up to speed; absences and high worker turnover can have a severe negative effect on organisations. High worker turnover also results in the loss of skills, experience and knowledge that can be crucial for organisations, leaving a large hole to be filled. Additionally, the time and cost invested in supporting and training an individual which is then lost if they leave can be significant.

Individuals with a strong sense of loyalty to their company who also have high levels of engagement at work will help increase organisational stability and lower worker turnover.  They are also more likely to recommend the company to others, as a good place to work. These positive reviews of the organisation from current workers, are crucial to talent acquisition as an organisation grows.

So, when autonomy and belonging are both experienced, organisations can reap the benefits from highly motivated and productive teams with a strong sense of company loyalty as well as a growing reputation as a great organisation to work for.

  • Competence:

Feeling competent and able to accomplish things in life is key to an individual’s feelings of confidence and self-worth.  Feeling incompetent and having low self-esteem will, over time, negatively impact an individual’s wellbeing and mental health. From a professional perspective competence at work is of the greatest importance. If an individual feels unable to successfully fulfil their responsibilities, they will start to lose confidence and suffer increased feelings of stress. Appearing competent, is hugely important in most professions and is particularly true in the legal profession. Looking incompetent can be considered unprofessional and could reflect poorly on an individual’s credibility – and could even result in regulatory action being taken. It is therefore understandable why feeling this way affects stress levels and wellbeing and can eventually lead to mental ill health.

Organisations can make an enormous difference in this area by providing a healthy work environment in which individuals are either tasked with responsibilities they are already considered to be competent in, and will view as achievable, or are provided with the correct support and training to ensure they learn how to become competent and effective in the new area of responsibility. An individual’s own feelings of competence are key to ensuring they feel a task is achievable, but the support and feedback (or lack of) from their manager and colleagues can be just as important. The value of ensuring that a work environment is supportive on all levels, cannot be over emphasised. Good leaders know the importance of giving positive feedback.  Supportive colleagues are comfortable showing their admiration and respect for others and for a job well done.

From an organisation’s perspective, the key aspect of supporting and achieving individuals (and in turn organisational) competence is to ensure that there is clarity of expectations and a well communicated understanding of what competence looks like for the role they are undertaking. A lack of understanding of what is expected of them causes significant frustration for an individual leading to loss of confidence, motivation, and a sense of being unsupported.

Positive affirmations regarding people’s competence can have a large impact on their self-confidence and wellbeing, meaning that a team who know they are competent and also feel well supported in their growth and development, are more likely to be a productive and successful team.  Competent workers and teams who feel confident in their abilities also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, knowing they are capable and trusted to deal with problems head on. Organisations then benefit greatly from individuals and teams who are willing to problem solve, deal with difficult situations and generally strive to achieve success for the organisation. Add to this – a feeling of autonomy and a sense of belonging and organisations will find themselves benefiting from highly productive and dedicated teams, committed to achieving organisational growth and success alongside their own development.  

As can be seen, our ABC of wellbeing links many areas affecting individuals’ wellbeing and mental health with business success and stability. One theme in particular occurs throughout – strong, positive, open and honest communication.  While open and free communication is key to autonomy, it also enables effective relationship building and a strong sense of belonging.  Communicating expectations, support and giving feedback in a positive way is fundamental to encouraging a strong sense of competence.

With that in mind, we think all organisations should be committed to supporting their workers with their wellbeing, ensuring compliance and as a result having a more successful, stable, and healthy business.  If you would like to learn more about getting the communication flowing and how to start the conversation, please reach out to discuss any organisational needs on either hello@beyond-compliance.co.uk or 0121 288 5227.

All of our team members are qualified Mental Health First Aiders and can bring real value to your Wellbeing Strategy.