Q&A: Paul Flanagan: “Professional women are relying on exercise as their ‘go to’ stress-management strategy but, on its own, it doesn’t defuse stress at high-pressure levels.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] August 26, 2019

In our Q&A, Paul Flanagan, a clinical psychologist and board member of Executive Health Solutions, considers the mental health issues facing the legal profession; explains why female lawyers aged 30 to 40 are faring the worst; and offers advice on how law firms and their lawyers can combat stress and achieve a happier work and home life.

Your group’s Executive Health Index examines health issues for Australian executives in 18 industries, including the legal sector, and is built on data from more than 70,000 people. How does it work?

“The index provides organisations with an externally validated measure of overall health performance of their executive group compared with their peers. The real benefit is that we are providing normative data for organisations against other Australian executives who are not presenting with particular health problems. This provides a normative, comparative  group with similar socio-demographics, not the general population. Also, a lot of reported ‘health’ data, particularly when it is related to mental health, is based on phone interviews and unvalidated surveys, whereas our index uses clinical data.”

A recently revised edition of the index reveals that the legal industry has slipped from the overall top-ranked industry – based on factors such as psychological, physical, medical and lifestyle health – to 7th place. This was primarily due to a decline in the psychological health ranking, particularly related to stress, falling from 12th to 16th spot. Can you explain the change?

“The Executive Health Index focuses on health measures and outcomes, and less on causes. Our view on causes comes in part from the data, and also from clinical discussions with clients. Anecdotally, given that we are dealing with a lot of large law firms, it seems likely that the spike in mental health concerns was in part related to the banking royal commission, with stress being transferred to these professionals in terms of their workload and demands, as well as other competitive pressures.”

Law firms have a reputation for being a high-stress environment. Is that a factor in the results?

“One of the models we use to view causal or contributing factors is a biopsychosocial model, which considers psychological states as being due to a combination of a person’s biology, psychology and environment. If we look at individuals, in terms of genetics or their personality or coping style, there is nothing, of course, that makes lawyers significantly different to other professionals. Most of the difference is due to environmental factors. I’m not talking about the physical environment at work, but rather the psychological environment, work systems and culture. With professional services firms, you’ve got significant external pressures as a result of client expectations and, particularly when clients themselves are under a lot of pressure, that often gets transferred to the professionals working with them, which in turn can be transferred to other people in the firm. So it’s this combination of such external pressures, along with internal pressures in terms of work expectations and long hours and the level of responsibility and risk employees face, that can create psychological risk. There is nothing more powerful than peer pressure and when that is underpinned by certain types of recognition and reward systems, it can be a toxic mix.”

Based on the latest index findings, the legal industry was seen to be the worst-performing sector for stress, while 50 per cent of legal sector participants were working more than 60 hours a week. What else did you discover?

“One very interesting finding emerged from the data. There’s a general belief that exercise is an antidote to stress, and there’s a lot of literature about the benefits of exercise in combatting depression and mood problems. However, one of the groups that had the worst mental health problems were females aged 30 to 40, and the next demographic group that was almost as bad were females aged 40 to 50. We looked at how that was statistically related to their other health measures and behaviours. When we looked at their exercise levels, we found that a lot of professional woman do a lot of exercise. Our data shows that exercise helps reduce stress for women with low to moderate levels of stress, but not for high levels of stress. It seems that many professional women are relying on exercise as their ‘go to’ stress-management strategy but, on its own, it doesn’t defuse stress at high-pressure levels.”

Can we assume that parenting duties were having a significant impact on women in the 30-40 age group.

“You’re looking at a double whammy for women in that age group as they balance work and parenting. In that range, executive females were twice as likely as their male peers to have psychological health problems. It improved a little bit in the 40-50 age range. So the findings would seem to correspond pretty closely to child and family responsibilities. Across all professional women in the index, 23 per cent were working more than 60 hours a week, while within the legal profession 40 per cent of women were working more than 60 hours per week. So they have a heavy workload.”

The findings paint a worrying picture for the legal industry, would you agree?

“They certainly paint a picture that more needs to be done. The findings represent a social comment about gender roles and responsibilities at home, but from a work point of view they suggest that some firms need to look at revamping roles and responsibilities and flexibility in the workplace. For instance, flexible work policies work best when firms act and implement such policies for everyone – for males and females. That allows flexibility to be built in much more broadly to the culture of the firm, rather than just having a particular flexibility for parents.”

How should law firms, and law firm leaders in particular, be responding to challenges around work-life balance versus profitability?

“For individuals and firms, there’s a trade-off between work-life balance, flexibility and health, and then output and dollars. In smaller firms, individual lawyers can set their own dial on income. Most people, once they get into their career in smaller practices where it’s more intimate and closely connected, can eventually get to a situation with which they are comfortable. The challenge in large firms is that it’s the firm or the partnership that sets that dial. So the focus is on revenue targets, business development expectations, team performance indicators and those types of things. A lot of individuals now think they don’t have a choice but to follow the lead of their firm, but of course the firm can make a choice. A lot of individuals are weighing up their satisfaction levels, not just related to the hip pocket, but their work satisfaction more broadly. And there’s often a disconnect between those two things, which can lead to a lot of psychological problems and burnout. So trying to get such parameters aligned with what people need represents one of the major challenges for firms.”

Speaking as a clinical psychologist, what are the long-term implications for lawyers if mental health problems are not adequately addressed?
“At the pointy end there’ll be more severe mental health problems that take a great toll on individuals. They’ll suffer quite a lot and eventually leave the firm. Also, just back from that extreme, there’s a large degree of lower-level stress and burnout among employees. This perpetuates the problem because it impacts on people’s work and career satisfaction and can lead to an unhealthy environment. We see a reasonable amount of dissatisfaction and disengagement in younger lawyers, of course, but even among partners.”

What are some coping strategies?

“For senior people in law firms, one important strategy concerns work-life balance – by that I mean not just making sure you’re getting home by 7.30pm, but also that you have a fulfilling life outside work through social connections, exercise, family and friends. You have to be able to disconnect from the workplace and recharge, and most importantly to get some psychological distance from work. If you’re working very long hours and are regularly under pressure, it starts to consume you psychologically, not only time-wise but mentally with regard to what you’re thinking about all the time. People can be off work for the weekend, but they might be answering emails or thinking about work for half the time. That’s really not a break. Work needs to be part of life, not the other way around.”

Your team has discussed the importance of legal professionals and others investing in building their own personal resilience to combat stress. How can they do this?

“Resilience is about managing the interface between the pressures you’re under and your psychological resources or fitness. Individuals under pressure need to understand their psychological load and how they’re managing that. Be self-aware about how you’re feeling, and understand at any point in time how you really are psychologically and physically. Know what levers to pull when you need to. Know when you need to have a real break. Know when you need help. Know when to talk to your client about an issue. Know when you need to adjust your workload or talk to your manager. And understand how to manage your own psychological wellbeing. Of course, if you are not in charge then you need an interested, receptive and flexible manager. The starting point is having the awareness to know that this is something you need to do, rather than letting things happen to you.”

What do you think about resilience training for partners and lawyers?

“Resilience can’t be taught, but it can be developed. You can’t build resilience by teaching  people about resilience any more than you can build a healthy culture by running a course on the principles of organisational culture. There is a lot of time and money spent on well-intentioned but misguided training. Resilience is the result of the dynamic relationship between individuals and their environment, so organisations can support this through the creation of the appropriate environmental factors. From a workforce perspective, resilience building is primarily about people practices and culture, not training. From a psychological risk perspective with individuals, it’s also about empowerment and accessible support systems, both responsive and proactive, to support an individual’s personal development.”

What role should HR departments play in implementing and enforcing better working practices?

“In larger firms it is the role of HR to help implement these mental health policies and put in place the right things to support policies with action. However, it’s crucial that HR combines with the leadership team of the firm to make it happen. HR on its own can’t change the culture nor run effective programs without committed leadership.”

And what about smaller firms? Many larger firms have wellness programs and the resources to tackle health issues, but there is often an argument that under-resourced smaller firms simply battle on. Is there anything they can do, in particular?

“We have noticed that some smaller firms are implementing wellbeing programs, but it does come down to the owners and the partners in the smaller firms to lead and manage these programs. With smaller firms, every now and again it’s useful for the partners to take stock and reassess whether work is actually working for them and for others. You can get on a treadmill after a number of years and often owners don’t take time out to reflect until it’s too late. It can lead to a psychological crisis and senior leaders or owners realise they’re running around in circles and making good money, but not really enjoying work. It’s the difference between reward versus effort versus their work satisfaction and stress levels.”

Are some sectors getting it right with mental health issues?

“There’s definitely been a positive movement in the past few years for some organisations that are systematically developing strategies that create a psychologically healthy environment in the workplace. They are usually complementing that with some type of support systems or proactive programs to support people to keep on track before they have mental health problems. Taking a preventative view by looking at work systems and culture, coupled with proactive support programs for individuals, represents a big step forward.”


Click here for the latest findings from the Executive Health Index.