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ANALYSIS: Wishes for Well-Being Don’t Go as Far as Actions

May 6, 2021, 9:00 AM

In these trying times, I hope this message finds you well.

Of all the ways that an organization’s approach to their communications with employees, customers, business partners, communities, and other stakeholders can backfire, starting a message with a generic, insincere statement like this is probably the most ubiquitous. But whatever tack an organization takes, it’s crucial to remember that even the most benign-sounding of communications can have an impact—an impact that may hit squarely upon the well-being of the audience.

A marketing announcement that comes off as out of touch with the cultural moment could lose potential customers. A newly distributed vacation policy framed in a context of productivity, efficiency, and competition could have a significant deleterious effect on workplace morale.

What can your communication strategy do to reinforce habits of well-being rather than exacerbate uncertainty, stress, or burnout? How can you help and not hurt? Start small, define your scope, gather feedback, and address gaps.

In keeping with Monday’s reminder that well-being isn’t about perfection, this is not a mandate to sit down and write the one flawless statement that will meet every stakeholder’s needs and reshape the industry. Instead, take the opportunity provided by Well-Being Week in Law to assess how well you’re meeting one group’s needs.

Start with your employees. Assess your organization’s policies, internal newsletters, intranet pages, and onboarding material.

Showing, Not Telling

What does it tell the people who make the business run if employee policies express rules and regulations by rote, weekly emails only include metrics, and the onboarding packet is filled with performance scales?

No organization sets out to fall behind the market, and one employee survey isn’t going to kick off the seismic shift that would be necessary to move the legal industry away from the billable hour and toward a healthier work infrastructure. But each communication that exposes an emphasis on output, earnings, sales, or fees fortifies a simple message that is rooted in a complex network of assumptions.

The message is, “Each employee is worth the relative net impact on the bottom line that can be attributed to them.” The assumptions are that each employee can be compartmentalized out of the rest of their life, that every employee has internalized corporate goals to the exclusion of personal goals, and that material or status-based success is a universal value.

In actual fact, however, employees—even lawyers—are people.

Lawyers know what it looks like in the compliance arena when goals are tied to “the numbers” and metrics take the place of ethics. Pick any compliance failure that led to penalties or jail time and then take a step in to picture the rest of the people who worked there. What’s the likelihood that those employees felt satisfaction at doing their job well? Or were in good health with balanced habits?

Tone From the Top—All the Way Down

Anyone who has spent any time thinking about corporate compliance has the reflex to answer, “Tone from the top!” when issues of communication arise. But the tone from the top really does matter when the issue is the well-being of an organization’s workforce.

Beware the pitfall of too-smoothed-out messaging that falls flat instead of resonates. Carefully worded mission statements about the organization’s values can be potent drivers of growth, but if those values are out of sync with daily workplace stressors and expectations, the result can be dissatisfaction and high turnover. It’s not enough for leadership to say well-being matters if there aren’t mechanisms available for employees.

For example, the C-suite may not want to go out on a limb and seem to make promises about work-life balance, so changes to policies and guidelines may have to be incremental. If they are, work to make those increments meaningful. And be transparent about what the limited promise and the anticipated result really are.

The tone from the top won’t change the tune in every meeting or in every email, though. One way to ensure success of the organization’s support of well-being is to empower every employee to be and hold others accountable to the effort. We’re not talking about shaming a colleague for taking too many months without a day off, but something more productive: make room in all levels of communication for employees to remind each other to prioritize well-being.

Progress, Not Perfection

If you can’t dismantle the billable-hour system on your own, what can you do? Ask your employees. And listen to them.

The people who make up the workforce can’t steer your organization’s success while simultaneously fighting crosswinds of stress, ill health, anxiety, exhaustion, and pressure to cut corners. Only when this conflict is resolved can you realign your employee policies with well-being goals in mind.

As part of the legal industry, your organization can play a role in building momentum toward overall improvements in the environment for lawyers, paralegals, judges and other legal professionals. Carry forward the momentum from well-being week into the regular review of corporate policies, reassessments of health and wellness benefits, reflection on your organization’s turnover rates and employee referral rates, and discussions among leaders about innovative ways to incentivize well-being across the workforce.

Inspirational posters and mission statements can’t counterbalance an environment that pressures employees to overwork or that punishes employees for taking—or requesting—leave. But if an organization never talks about what its particular vision of employee well-being looks like, that environment will never develop.

Everyone can find related content available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can also find content related to leave policies on our Employee Leave practical guidance page and other corporate policies on our Building the Program practical guidance page.

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