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Support at work: mindfulness training can alleviate stress, but managing workload pressure remains the most important factor © Getty Images

Aakash Choubey says it was during India’s Covid lockdowns that he realised something was seriously wrong at Khaitan & Co.

There was a sudden jump in resignations and requests for sabbaticals, the firm’s HR partner explains — which made him realise that not only were some staff struggling with their mental health but also that some of their difficulties might be work-related.

“During Covid, we realised that personal boundaries were being erased. We were in lockdown for close to a year in India. Employees were getting emails and were on unscheduled calls at all times of day and night.”

Mental health support was already on the law firm’s radar. It had introduced an employee assistance programme (EAP) in 2018, but the mental health component was barely used. After 2021, the firm began to promote the available services more rigorously and put mental health concerns front and centre by hiring a full-time associate to address them.

Part of her remit is to scrutinise time-sheets, Choubey explains. If any lawyer is found to have been working intensively for a period of more than two weeks including weekends, they are contacted to ask how they are doing and if they would like to ask for time off. “Switch-off” periods — where partners are encouraged to reduce emails between 8pm on Fridays and 8am on Mondays — are suggested. If this is not possible because of pressing work commitments, partners are encouraged to offer recuperation days off, once the crucial milestones have been passed.

Khaitan has also introduced a “no-questions-asked” menstrual leave policy for women.

“Proof that the measures might be working can be seen in attrition data,” says Choubey. “In 2021-2022, there was a marked drop in the numbers of people leaving the firm.” He argues that organisations that do not adapt risk losing out in the competitive hiring market.

Dickie Mok, a Hong Kong-based counsellor and lecturer in law, who previously worked in multinational law firms, says he understands the particular difficulties lawyers face.

“For junior lawyers, especially, there’s really a sense that your time is not your own,” Mok explains, adding that the unpredictability of demands on their lives, especially when working across Asian and other time zones, can add to stress. “You might have a call at 1am that you just have to deal with,” he says, “but it is the culture [of working for prominent law firms] that you just have to suck it up.”

Mok believes this eventually affects lawyers working in teams if the manager remains un­aware of the effects of such large and unpredictable workloads.

Sometimes, work pressures are not the cause of mental health difficulties but can serve to magnify existing problems — as Yukiko Otani, professional support lawyer, and Kei Shirakawa, partner at Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, note.

They cite the example of a lawyer who had joined the firm shortly after recovering from a major depressive episode. Then, two years ago, after confronting significant fresh personal and professional challenges, she felt herself about to slide back into depression. However, she sought help after the firm issued its regular monthly communication reminding lawyers of the availability of a free consultation with its contracted counsellor, and her personal crisis was averted.

“She has since expressed to us how this timely assistance was instrumental in helping her navigate through her difficulties,” says Shirakawa, adding that the woman had also found a renewed sense of purpose in her work.

According to partner Akemi Suzuki, at rival law firm Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu, a proactive interest in workloads is also delivering dividends. The firm provides various mental health support services, performs annual stress check surveys, and closely monitors associates’ working hours. “Lawyers and staff are the most important asset for any major law firm,” Suzuki says.

Mok adds that small interventions — such as mindfulness training or access to relaxation classes — can help, but the work context remains the most important factor a firm can consider: “You can give someone a life jacket and teach them how to swim, but if you keep throwing them overboard, they are going to drown anyway.”

An individual who works closely with mental health service provision in Japan, but prefers to remain anonymous, agrees. “Implementing an EAP does not suddenly solve the mental health problems that employees are facing,” he emphasises.

He points to recent academic research that suggests most occupational wellbeing interventions — including resilience training, mindfulness and wellbeing apps — have no discernible benefits. “It is the responsibility of management to create safe, positive working environments. It is not the responsibility of the employee to ‘deal with stress better’,” he says.

For law firms, these research findings might make it even harder to know how best to support their lawyers.

According to Kei Akagawa, partner at Anderson Mori & Tomotsune in Tokyo, simple interventions have proved helpful, such as a decision after Covid to encourage face-to-face contact within teams by funding team dinners at the firm. But, unlike some of his peers, he sees no problems with the long hours that lawyers work, especially because they have to “market” themselves if they wish to be successful.

For some, there remains an acceptance that the risks of burnout or more serious mental health difficulties come with the job. But more firms are recognising the need to address these risks — particularly as they encounter demands from younger professionals who see their mental health and wellbeing as a growing priority.

“Like most organisations, we definitely have certain naysayers who have either not encountered mental health issues or have not yet reached the level of understanding as is expected on these issues in today’s times,” says Khaitan’s Choubey.

“But the organisation we are working towards building is one you’d like your children to join.”

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