Practicing law is not for the faint of heart.
Attorneys are consistently ranked among the most chronically stressed out professionals. Even before COVID-19 hit, 31% of law practitioners reported feeling depressed, 64% had anxiety, and about 14% said they struggled with substance abuse.
Kirkland & Ellis, the largest law firm in the U.S. by revenue, took a bold step in 2019 to address this crisis by creating a new employee well-being program—the first of its kind for a large law firm. The firm hired Robin Belleau, an attorney and certified counselor who previously served as executive director of the Lawyers’ Assistance Program in Illinois, as the director of well-being.
The chief objective of Kirkland’s wellness program is to provide more education, resources and support surrounding mental health issues—and reduce the stigma of asking for help.
“My hope is that the more we talk about these issues in the legal community, the less stigma there is attached to getting help,” Belleau says.
A key focus of the wellness program is to offer resources that cater to attorneys’ busy schedules. With that in mind, she spearheaded the launch of two apps (Will and Workit) to support stress reduction, increase resiliency and help individuals make healthier choices regarding substance abuse and other potentially addictive behaviors. The apps were introduced via email to staffers, bolstered by regular how-to videos that show employees how to make the most of the apps and find mental health resources.
Most wellness pros are tasked with reducing a company’s health care bill, but when Belleau was hired, her supervisor said she hoped costs would go up. In other words, the firm wanted more employees to access care and seek out resources.
Belleau set a modest goal of hoping five to 10 employees would reach out for mental health assistance in the first year of the program. Since the program rolled out in May 2019, 70 have sought help. Of course, some may just reach out directly to a therapist or seek other treatment outside of work, so the numbers may be even higher. That makes tracking ROI tricky, but Belleau likens it to a speech.
“You can measure how many people attend your presentation, but it doesn’t show the true value of your efforts,” she says.
Kirkland’s HR team tracks how many employees reach out for assistance and monitors where they were referred from. HR also sends out surveys after presentations and newsletters to seek employee feedback.
Belleau says that most of Kirkland’s 5,000 employees are still working from home, which makes consistent communication pivotal.
The firm is promoting virtual events amid COVID-19, such as a firmwide trivia challenge with a big prize at the end. There’s also a companywide email from the chairman each week, in addition to a regular company e-newsletter.
Belleau manages an internal well-being site on the company intranet, which is a combination of her own writing and curating relevant articles. The site features current fitness initiatives (“Step-tember” and upcoming 5Ks) and well-being “minutes” (bite-sized articles) around timely topics (dealing with uncertainty, anxiety, substance abuse, etc.), as well as guidance on workplace boundaries and nutrition.
Belleau says that the firm’s messaging is smartly segmented, which leads to closer-knit, “family-like” groups. Lawyers are divided into practice groups (and staffers are “departmentalized”), with each group receiving tailored communication.
Part of her job is reminding partners to check in on employees and reminding them to ask open-ended questions to help maintain morale. All that connection is important, as is “wellness prevention” in general, but Belleau says that “the opportunity is in the back-half of that.”
“You must help those who are already struggling and hurting,” she says, offering a reminder that mindfulness and meditation don’t work for everybody. Employees may need to see a therapist or get medication.
“You must bring a clinical piece to your approach,” Belleau says. That might mean bringing on an expert who can help with specific, common problems such as substance abuse, chronic stress or depression.
Belleau cites the notion that many wellness initiatives fail to make much impact simply because they require too much time or effort. Start small, with simple steps, she advises, and don’t expect to be everything to everyone. For instance, if you’re trying to promote mindfulness or meditation, recommend starting in five-minute increments whenever they have time. Offer practical, easy-to-implement tips and takeaways, such as building 15-minute breaks into your daily calendar.
“You have to work within the framework that’s provided for you,” she says. “You’re not going to change a culture overnight.”
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