fivehundred magazine > Leadership > Good wellbeing starts with good leadership

Good wellbeing starts with good leadership

EMEA editor Ella Marshall talks to Dentons’ new Europe chief mindfulness officer, Karina Furga-Dabrowska, on the modern pressures faced by lawyers and how law firms can better combat poor mental health and wellbeing among their workforces

Karina, you’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, how has the profession changed in terms of the pressure placed on lawyers?

Lawyers today operate under a heightened sense of urgency, which creates more stress. Clients want answers immediately (yesterday was too late!) and they demand lower fees so we are constantly striving to be faster, more accurate, more efficient.

At the same time, we face constant distractions from email and social media, and are always multitasking. And, since we are expected to always be reachable on our mobile phones or email, it’s hard to turn off and unplug even during weekends or holidays. This results in a significantly higher risk of psychological problems, and it affects workplace culture. We need to really integrate mental wellbeing into our working culture as part of the fabric of who we are.

We also need to collaborate more among ourselves and with our clients. The times of simply being an arms-length expert are over. This is a challenge for us as lawyers. Collaboration is not our natural state we tend to focus on being right, on being judgemental, on winning the case.

Real collaboration requires emotional regulation, social skills, self-reflection and empathy. And this is where mindfulness can really help. Practising mindfulness not only enables us develop and cultivate these skills, but also manage the effects of stress on our minds and bodies, regain focus, increase clarity and innovation.

What are the internal barriers to lawyers seeking help from their firms?

Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to seeking help is shame. There is still a stigma about mental health. Rightly or wrongly, we are taught that a good lawyer leaves their emotions at the door and doesn’t show vulnerability. Rarely, there is room to talk openly about the challenges of being a lawyer. We constantly strive to be perfect. As a result, we are ashamed of our struggles, hiding them and suppressing our emotions. On the outside, it appears that everyone is coping just fine and that we are the only one ‘flawed’. This, in turns, makes us feel isolated and not good enough.

If we admit we are struggling, will our colleagues question our competence or our commitment? Could we risk losing our job? Many people feel more comfortable getting help outside of work, which is fine as long as they do get help. Statistically, women are more likely than men to talk about their emotions and to seek professional help. Likewise, Millennials are more likely to seek help than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.

In your experience, have attitudes towards mental health in the legal industry changed since you entered the profession? There is a big shift happening now. Younger lawyers are more open to talking about emotions and mental health, and they are more vocal about wanting a better balance between work and personal life. We are also seeing a lot more media attention on mental health issues, and this is helping to break down the taboo.

There was a US-based study published earlier this year that found Millennials are suffering from a higher prevalence of mental health issues, substance abuse, and diabetes than Gen X did at their age. It is unclear if this increase is due to higher rates of reporting or whether these illnesses are really on the rise, but at any rate it is a serious issue for society.

What can firms do better to combat mental health issues among their workforces?

It starts with good leadership and organisational culture. Partners and team leaders need to be empathetic, compassionate and authentic, or simply put, they need to develop emotional intelligence. They need to be able to recognise the fine line between healthy stress (which helps us challenge ourselves and grow) and unhealthy stress. They need to look for signs that people are struggling and talk to them openly about how to best address that.

Many firms introduce wellbeing programmes, such as mindfulness, yoga classes, or contribution to gym memberships. Some firms offer employee assistance programmes to give their people access to confidential professional counselling. More and more firms are offering flexible working arrangements, such as flexible or part-time hours or occasional home office, to help people better balance their work and personal responsibilities.

There are some who believe a more fundamental change is needed. I recently read a great blog from a Dentons partner in the US. She shared a compelling argument that law firms’ use of billable hours as the basis for compensation is creating a culture of burnout. She proposed that mandatory holidays and a new approach to compensation could help.

Why is wellbeing particularly important to you?

Like many lawyers, I have always been very driven and focused on professional achievement, but this eventually took its toll. I faced issues of anxiety, depression, and burnout, which affected not only my career satisfaction, but also my personal life. I turned to mindfulness as part of my own therapy, and it significantly improved and enriched the quality of my life in general.

These days, we put a lot of effort into taking care of our bodies and physical health we exercise, we eat healthy food but we often neglect to take care of our minds. This is unfortunate, as a lawyer’s mind is their most-used and valued instrument. Mindfulness is a form of mental training or exercise for the mind, which to me seems just as important as going to the gym.

You’ve recently been appointed to the position of Europe chief mindfulness officer (ECMO), what exactly does this role involve?

My main responsibility will be to make mindfulness an integral part of Dentons’ culture, thus supporting our vision to be the law firm of the future. I will contribute to our global NextTalent programme by using mindfulness to develop the essential skills of the lawyer of the future.

We aim to position Dentons at the leading edge of this emerging field. Our mindfulness initiatives will further strengthen the position, brand, and innovativeness of Dentons as an employer and trusted partner in law. They will help to nurture a culture in which high performance is founded on compassionate leadership, authenticity, honesty, respect, and teamwork in order to drive productivity and innovation.

In practice, it means working closely with our global talent team to design and deliver mindfulness training programmes and workshops to our people. I will also be collaborating with a network of internal ‘mindfulness ambassadors’, Dentons people who have volunteered to be trained to deliver mindfulness sessions for their colleagues.

Prior to your appointment as ECMO, you were instrumental in launching the firm’s NextMind programme. Would you explain what it is, how widely it has been taken up in the firm, and what is coming next?

First, we usually run introductory workshops, where we discuss the benefits of mindfulness techniques, and then walk people through one or two mindfulness meditation exercises. These sessions are generally short 45 to 90 minutes and we hold them at international conferences, practice and sector group meetings, and other such events. So far, more than 500 people from around the world have attended these workshops, either in person or virtually.

We also designed, in collaboration with Kalapa Leadership Academy, a fully-fledged mindfulness course, consisting of weekly two-hour workshops over eight weeks. Participants of NextMind not only practice but also learn about the neurophysiology of the brain, pitfalls of multi-tasking, transforming thinking processes, regulating negative emotions, building trusted relationships, and mindful communication and teamwork. They also practice different meditation techniques, which they are encouraged to apply in their own regular mindfulness practice. So far, 60 people from Europe have attended this course.

So what’s next? We have several introductory mindfulness workshops planned for retreats, group meetings, and webinars in the autumn and winter. We are rolling out the eight-week course via webinar for four groups of 25 people from around the world. We are also planning our second train-the-trainer retreat to teach our mindfulness ambassadors how to facilitate workshops and sessions in their local offices.

How has practising mindfulness been incorporated into the global NextTalent programme?

NextTalent is a global programme which uses the principles of neuroscience and behavioural sciences to help our people develop more emotional intelligence and resilience. These are key skills and qualities of the lawyer of the future.

Mindfulness meditation is simply one tool in the NextTalent arsenal. It helps increase focus and develop core elements of emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, social skills and empathy.

In addition to the NextMind programme, what other positive action has the firm taken to promote mental health and wellness among its employees? Dentons takes health and wellness very seriously. In addition to introducing the NextTalent programme, we are also working to encourage open and honest feedback within our firm. We are also very much focused on inclusion, which means celebrating our diversity and allowing people to be their authentic selves at work.

Taken together, these will help create a culture of healthy dialogue, so that people can talk more openly about their emotional states and the challenges they are facing.

Mental health is closely related to physical health, so we recently ran a Europe-wide Healthy Challenge where our people were challenged to take specific actions every day around four goals: healthy diet, exercise, sleep and mental wellness. More than 500 people participated.

In many offices we offer flexible working arrangements, such as home office, which are appreciated by our people. Some offices also offer other benefits such as yoga classes, sports activities, and gym memberships. Our US region recently introduced an employee assistance programme that sounds very interesting.

And finally, we have passionate people, who love what they do. And we try to make work fun. We be lieve that legal practice can be enjoyable.

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