Combatting depression in NZ law firms

Having a wellness plan in place to combat health issues such depression is not only part of being decent human beings, but it makes good business sense for law firms, the chair of one NZ firm says.

Once upon a time it was the elephant in the room.

Now, the high rate of depression in the legal profession is something that is openly discussed.

The stigma still remains – to a certain extent.

Minter Ellison Rudd Watts chair Cathy Quinn expected it would still be difficult for a lawyer in any firm to approach their superior and request time off for a mental health illness.

But the barriers are slowly being broken down.

Across the ditch, a record number of law firms, organisations and universities have adopted guidelines to tackle the illness.

“As a firm we are very conscious of the statistics around depression in the legal industry and we’re tackling this by offering training and support through our ‘Wellness” Programmes’,” Minter Ellison Rudd Watts managing partner Mark Weenink told NZLawyer.

These include resilience workshops from a staff member’s first year as part of a professional development programme, awareness campaigns, a peak performance programme featuring seven workshops annually with topics such as ‘building a peak performance mind-set’, ‘switching off from work’ and ‘health basics’, a free counselling service, mentoring and access to a nurse, to name a few.

Quinn said it was “critically important” for a firm to be supportive of their staff in terms of wellness programmes.

“You have to have an engaged workforce, and there is the responsibility it make sure that people can perform at their optimum.

“So it makes good business sense, as well as just being decent human beings.”

Her favourite initiative at the firm is the peak performance programme.

“[It] is seven workshops a year that cover a whole range of topics. They change from year to year depending on need.

“I think that’s a really valuable programme because it is available to everyone in the firm.”

Recently at the firm’s partners’ retreat the concept of mindfulness training was discussed.

The UK Mental Health Foundation has defined mindfulness as “an integrative, mind-body based approach that helps people change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful experiences”.

“We talked about the benefits it could have to our partner group, and I think that was a reasonably courageous thing for us to talk to our partners about, and a very valuable thing,” Quinn said.

Her advice to lawyers who suspected they could be depressed was simple: “Get help.”

“They should talk to their doctor, and they should talk to others, and they should get help.

“Personally I don’t think depression is different from any other illness, whether it is cancer, heart disease, arthritis, the flu.

“It’s an illness like anything else, and you shouldn’t be ashamed about it – you should just get help and get better.”

Last year, it was revealed that in the United States, lawyers were 3.6times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

While there are no firm statistics in New Zealand, it is widely accepted that this trend is mirrored here. The New Zealand Law Society dedicates entire pages of its website to information on depression and burnout.

Is your firm doing anything differently in terms of mental health and wellness? Contact Hannah [email protected]

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