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Absenteeism in the legal sector: What are the causes and impacts?

Absenteeism can be utterly devastating for productivity in the workplace. It doesn't just affect the output of the absent employee, either. Their co-workers' productivity is doomed to suffer as well. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, overtime is used to cover 47% of employee absences, and staff members are perceived to be almost 30% less productive when covering for an absent co-worker.

But what is the impact of absenteeism in the legal sector? The legal sector as a whole is well known for its intensity and competitive nature, where reputation and reliability are key to success. So today, we are discussing the dangers posed to it by absenteeism, what the causes of absence are, and how can deal with it moving forward.

What causes absenteeism at firms and chambers?

Whether at a firm or in a chamber, life in the legal sector can mean one of the most hectic, high-stress, high-stakes environments it's possible to work in. According to a pair of 2018 surveys by The Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales, barristers are struggling with their work/life balance, and are less happy in their working lives than NHS staff.

AON in 2018 published their 'State of Partner and Employee Engagement in the Legal Sector' report which found the average employee was only 52% engaged in their current role with their current firm. With engagement being a key predictor of the likelihood of absenteeism, a low level of engagement is not good for business.

On top of that, a 2019 survey of 10000 British workers by the insurance firm Protectivity found that lawyers are the second most stressed profession, with 63% of respondents from the legal sector reporting feeling stressed on a daily basis.

Absenteeism in the legal sector has the potential to cause huge disruption and cost reputation.

The stressful nature of legal work is hardly a revelation. The Young Solicitors Group (YSG) has been trying to tackle the issue since as far back as 1998. Back then, they found that the most stressful environments were actually the smaller practices that failed to address management issues. Times have changed, and a number of firms are now leading the charge for a better working environment. For example, Plymouth-based Portcullis Legals and Florida-based Benenati Law have each tried to improve their employees' work/life balance by instituting four-day work weeks.

2012 saw the formation of Wellbeing at the Bar, which conducted the first wellbeing survey of the barrister profession as a whole in 2015. The survey highlighted issues in workplace culture, such as the majority of respondents believing that showing signs of stress at work indicated weakness that would be pounced upon by senior management.

Wellbeing at the Bar also compiled a variety of resources online, and has been an outspoken proponent for improving quality of life for barristers for the past eight years.

Weekly10 has helped us measure and improve employee engagement across the board. The boost to productivity and reduction of absences are really starting to show.

Carl Turner - TownSquare

But still, the law sector's reputation for being a stress-inducing pressure cooker of a workplace has not gone away. Clearly a certain amount of stress is necessary for the job, but as with any profession, too much can impair a professional's ability to perform.

Stress is prevalent in many firm and chambers positions and a huge contributor to absenteeism in the legal sector

What effect does absenteeism have on the legal sector?

In the introduction, we touched upon some statistics that show how absenteeism affects businesses in general. And it's important to note that absenteeism costs UK businesses as a whole approximately £38 billion a year. But the legal sector is an entity all its own, with its own distinct set of challenges to face.

A breakdown in legal services has the potential to negatively impact a client's future in a way few other professional services can compare to. The sudden disappearance of the lawyer assigned to a case can be incredibly difficult and costly to overcome, as a different associate likely has to painstakingly bring themselves up to speed on the file. This inevitably means it takes more time to get the case ready to bring to court, and the client will almost certainly be unhappy at the sudden addition of more billable hours, forcing the firm to choose between their bottom line and client relations.

And absenteeism has the potential to be even more problematic for barristers, who are largely self-employed and run the risk of damaging their reputation, losing out on potential cases, or even losing their place in the chamber altogether.

How to combat absenteeism in the legal sector

Dealing with absenteeism can be broadly split into two categories: Stress reduction and absence mitigation.

There are many approaches to stress reduction in the workplace. As previously mentioned, some law firms are experimenting with shorter work weeks, resulting in a great deal of positive feedback from staff. More traditional flexible working arrangements such as allowing staff to work from home when appropriate can also be helpful in cases where the stress stems from a poor work/life balance.

Improving access to mental health services is also majorly important to making the law sector less stressful. Particularly with the apparent prevalence of the "œshowing stress is a sign of weakness" mentality, providing counselling and other therapies is especially important as it will give associates and barristers someone neutral and separate from their co-workers to vent to, as well as helping them develop techniques and habits to help them deal with the difficulties of legal sector life.

In terms of absence mitigation, law firms are already some of the way there. Some firms already assign multiple mid-level associates to the same case, having both of them brought up to speed simultaneously. Making this more of a standard practice is one of the best ways to mitigate the direct consequences of unplanned absences, while also enabling associates to book time off without needing to worry about the state of their casework while they are away. This in turn can help to reduce stress and improve work/life balance, thereby improving productivity and loyalty to the firm.

Unfortunately, this approach may not be suitable for barristers, with law chambers being a more competition-focused place of work. Again, if stress is the issue, then giving barristers access to the proper support is vital to ensuring their continued productivity. But on top of that, chambers should consider taking measures to mitigate the career spiral that can be precipitated by an unplanned leave of absence by ensuring they are able to gain clients again upon their return. These absences will be easier to deal with on the personal end if the barrister knows their influx of work is not in jeopardy.

Another way to help reduce absenteeism is to improve communication and feedback within firms and chambers. An online performance appraisal and check-in platform such as Weekly10 helps employers keep an eye on the wellbeing of their staff by monitoring their satisfaction ratings, and their productivity via "œsmart objectives," OKRs and highly customisable questions. Employees also have regular opportunities to raise issues with their manager each week, with plenty of room in their check-in questions for additional comments.

However, for all of this to be effective, the law sector needs to change its workplace culture. The findings of groups like Protectivity, Wellbeing at the Bar, and The Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales show that many legal professionals are struggling with the demands of their workplace and often feel like there is nobody they can talk to for fear of judgement. Mental health issues and dissatisfaction with work are two major causes of workplace absenteeism. While this isn't exclusive to the legal sector, the level of stress and difficulty associated with these professions throws this issue into sharp relief.

Interested in learning how Weekly10 helps firms and chambers with absenteeism & engagement?