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Mental Health in the Workplace: "We All Have Mental Health and Therefore Everyone Needs to Address It"

An interview with Katharine Wadia, Lawyer at Clifford Chance

 

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your role at your organisation.

My name is Katharine Wadia and I am an out (and proud) bisexual woman. I have recently qualified into the incentives team at my law firm, Clifford Chance and I am involved in the education and awareness pillar for my firm's LGBTQ+ steering committee. I have run a series of events on raising bi awareness in the workspace. I have presented at events such as the firm's annual ACCEPT conference for LGBTQ+ students thinking about a career in law and represented the firm at many events, such as BiPride. I have also been involved in LGBTQ+ pro bono activities. Alongside my commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion, I also run the education and awareness pillar for my firm's disability group (ENABLE) and I am a trained mental health first aider. I have recently worked with others to launch our trainee tailored adjustment plan to better understand the impact of an individual's disability, long term injury or condition or workplace adjustment and how this affects them at work.

 

Does an organisations approach to mental health change the likelihood of you wanting to work there?

Completely, one of the main reasons that I applied to work at my firm was because of their commitment to diversity and inclusion which mental health is a big part of. Work is a major part of my life, I spend a lot of time there, beyond my given role I am invested in the firm's networks and pro-bono initiatives and I have developed strong bonds with my colleagues along the way. This all means there needs to be a holistic approach to how you are viewed, and see yourself, in the workplace. There will be times when life gets on top of you, and if my firm didn't support me beyond my work product then I would find it hard to stay long term. Luckily, I have found it easy to address mental health at work, I have had access to a workplace counsellor as well as understanding supervisors. I acknowledge that this isn’t always the case, especially in the legal industry, and there's a lot more that firms can be doing in the mental health space to attract and retain talent.     

 

What role do you think an LGBTQ+ network can play in promoting discussions around mental health in the workplace? 

Our LGBTQ+ network has a great platform in our firm, we have a lot of senior members and allies so it is very visible and using that influence to raise awareness around mental health is a top priority. Often mental health slips through the cracks between different diversity and inclusion networks but it is a common thread through all of them we all have mental health and therefore everyone needs to address it. LGBTQ+ networks should host events around key mental health dates, collaborate with other groups and take an active role in producing communications on mental health issues. For example, even changing your signature around a mental health awareness day to show support can mean a lot to someone on the other side of the screen. Given that half of LGBTQ+ people have experienced depression in the last year, it is also really important for the group to develop its own support systems and above all else just get the conversation going.

 

How important do you think work-life balance is when it comes to mental health?  

Work-life balance has a huge impact on mental health. One in six of us will experience a mental health problem in any given week and the pandemic has made us neglect factors in our lives that make us resilient to mental health problems. Normalised remote working means that you can easily fall into the trap of sending that email in early hours that can wait until tomorrow or skipping breakfast to get ahead – sooner or later you find out you're living at work and not working from home. I think it is really important to establish boundaries with colleagues but and yourself regarding your work schedule. I try and go for a run or a long walk every day and I block this time out in my calendar. I have been finding the third lockdown quite tough, so today, I borrowed my parents' dog because I know he'll get me out of the house! I also recognise that being junior in the firm makes it harder to push back on workload and maintain a balance, I am a firm believer that the main responsibility lies with your organisation's leaders to look after their employees' wellbeing.

 

How do you think it will continue to change over the next 10 years? 

The pandemic has meant that the workplace has forever changed, but it is not the only thing, addressing mental health has played a vital role in ensuring employees' safety whilst working from home. Research shows we are putting in more hours, experiencing burnout and being exposed to new stresses such as juggling home life whilst trying to do our jobs. Therefore, similarly to corporate social responsibility (CSR),  I would like to see firms place a business value on mental health. Considering that over half of millennials (born 1980-2000) and three quarters of Gen Z's (born 2000 – present) have left roles for mental health reasons, which is a great cost to companies, there is a serious business case for employers to take a vested interest in placing a value on their companies overall well-being. That value can take the form of offering mental health benefits, such as free access to online mental health services, healthcare that extends to therapy and allowing days off specifically for mental health. The legal industry has the resources and already does offer most of these perks yet typically it has one of the highest rates of stress-related mental health issues. To combat these high workloads and client demands, I wonder what place if any billable hours will have in future but I wouldn't want to crystal ball gaze just yet.

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