Herbert Smith Freehills launched a mental health mentor programme in May 2015 to help it address the causes and symptoms of mental ill-health in the workplace:
“We realised that mentoring could be a really valuable tool in the mental health context because it focuses on positive conversations and ongoing dialogue”.
Herbert Smith Freehills’ mental health programme started in 2009 with awareness raising and education sessions for partners. “Championed by some very senior partners, and supported by renowned psychoanalyst Mary Bradbury, the programme won high levels of engagement from the outset,” says David Shields, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, UK/US and EMEA for the global law firm. When he joined the firm David sought to build on the success of the education and awareness programme, which had been rolled out throughout the London office, by finding ways to help individuals who were experiencing mental health disorders themselves, or were affected by such disorders in others (family members, for example).
“We wanted something that went deep into the practice groups and business- service departments,” he recalls. “We had a range of mentoring programmes at the time and realised that mentoring could be a really valuable tool in the mental health context because it focuses on positive conversations and ongoing dialogue.”
He used the company intranet to explain what he wanted to do and ask for volunteers to train as mental health mentors. “It really captured people’s imagination,” he recalls. “We have 2,000 staff in our London office and 82 of them, including partners, other fee earners and people from business services functions, expressed a strong interest.”
The mental health mentor programme launched in May 2015 with 60 volunteer mentors from across the firm’s practice groups and business services functions. The mentors had been trained both in mental health awareness and how to apply mentoring skills in this context. They are available for any colleague to talk to about mental health, stress and wellbeing, and refer people on to other sources of advice and support as appropriate.
Each of the firm’s practice groups and service areas in the London office now has a mentor attached, and, as well as proactively identifying people who may be under pressure, they also promote wellbeing in their own areas. However, the mentors are profiled on the intranet, so people may choose to talk to the ones whom they feel have the experience most relevant to their own particular situation.
The mentors act as a network in the firm to promote its wider mental health and wellbeing programme, including seminars, panels and events featuring keynote speakers. In December, for example, Herbert Smith Freehills will host a talk by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications and strategy, who has done so much to raise awareness of mental ill-health.
David hopes the mentors’ networking role will help to encourage more openness in the firm about mental ill-health. “But we will also start working with them to identify key pressure points in the business in order to target appropriate interventions such as, for example, resilience and mindfulness training,” he adds.
The mentoring programme exists in the Belfast office too, but David wants to evaluate the impact in the UK before rolling it out to international offices where we probably also need to start with the educational piece and building understanding.
New mentors were recruited and trained in July 2016 in order to expand the programme.
He knows it’s working though. “James Palmer, our Senior Partner, is a big sponsor, as is Ian Cox, our Managing Partner for the UK, US and EMEA, which is very important. But to me the real difference is that the mentors are sliced down into the organisation, which means we can address issues at a very granular level.”