Author Archives: Isobel

Back to basics: how employers can help solicitors’ well-being

Law is one of the most popular degree choices, forming part of the ‘big triad’ along with medicine and finance in terms of a career of choice. But does a career in law come at a cost, and if so, what can employers do about it? Lucinda Soon, Solicitor and PhD student at Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, highlights key findings from her research with co-authors, Dr James Walsh, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh.

Over the past five years, the well-being of solicitors in England and Wales has become a topic of growing concern. In part, this was triggered by the disciplinary case of Sovani James. James, a junior solicitor, was struck off the Roll of Solicitors by the High Court for acting dishonestly at work, despite the Court acknowledging her behaviour may have arisen because of toxic work conditions and the stress she was under as a result. This decision sent an immediate shockwave through the solicitors’ profession, and an increased urgency developed to take the well-being of solicitors more seriously.

The Law Society of England and Wales has launched several surveys on the well-being of its junior members. Its latest survey, published in 2019, revealed that over 90% felt stressed in their role, with almost 25% feeling severely or extremely stressed. Last year, a study by the charity LawCare reported considerable risks of burnout, particularly relating to exhaustion.

These reports point towards a problem, but there is little evidence to inform us of what factors might be contributing to it and, importantly, how firms and organisations can help to address it. In our study, we sought to shed some light on this by looking at some possible aspects of work. Drawing on self-determination theory, we investigated how solicitors’ well-being might be affected by job autonomy, perceived belonging (or relatedness) at work, feelings of competence, and levels of mindfulness. To do this, we analysed responses from an online survey of 340 trainee and qualified solicitors practising in England and Wales.

The ABC’s of solicitors’ well-being

According to self-determination theory, we all have three basic psychological needs which must be satisfied if we are to flourish, thrive, and be well at work. These are the needs for autonomy (feeling we are in control of and have choice in our work), belonging or relatedness (feeling socially connected and supported at work), and competence (feeling we are effective in what we do, that we have mastery and skill, or that we can develop them). As the core psychological requirements for well-being, these factors also form a memorable acronym; to help solicitors’ well-being, do we need to go back to the basics of their ABCs?

We found the more that solicitors felt satisfied in their autonomy, belonging, and competence at work, the higher their well-being. This was observed regardless of gender, level of post-qualification experience (PQE), or type of organisation. In other words, common to all the solicitors we surveyed, feeling supported in their ABCs at work was important to their well-being.

Does mindfulness play a role?

Our study also found that solicitors with higher mindfulness experienced greater well-being. Again, this was the case regardless of gender, level of PQE, or where a solicitor worked, suggesting the benefit of mindfulness may be generally applied.

Interestingly, not only did higher mindfulness alone correspond with greater well-being; solicitors who were more satisfied in their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence at work had higher levels of mindfulness, which in turn contributed to their well-being. Having the basic ABC building blocks in place appeared to cultivate mindfulness, amplifying the well-being benefits for solicitors.

What does this mean for managers and leaders?

While a clear link was found between mindfulness and solicitors’ well-being, our study points towards the importance of ensuring solicitors are satisfied in their ABCs at work. These basic and fundamental work factors play a direct role in solicitors’ well-being and may also help to facilitate the development of mindfulness to strengthen it even further. This places the work environment and work conditions of solicitors firmly into the spotlight.

Solicitors need to feel they have autonomy, that they belong, and are supported and cared for at work. They equally need to feel they are competent and effective in their jobs. Without these basic elements, their well-being will suffer. Our findings raise the possibility that had Sovani James been supported by her firm in terms of her ABCs at work, her mental health and well-being may not have deteriorated to the extent that it did, ultimately resulting in the end of her legal career.

The impact of Covid-19 and beyond

The changing context of work arising from Covid-19 cannot be ignored. Remote working and a greater appreciation for more flexible ways of working may have given many solicitors more autonomy in terms of when, where, and how they work; however, it has also introduced new challenges into the mix.

Our study shows that feeling connected and cared for, and competent and effective at work, matters for solicitors’ well-being. These work conditions can be easily frustrated when solicitors work in isolation from colleagues, mentors, and leaders, especially over a prolonged period of time. This may be particularly so for trainees and junior solicitors, who are less experienced and may need more frequent support from others.

Social-networking tools and formal and informal virtual catchups can help solicitors feel connected and supported by their work community even when they are working from home. Likewise, regular access to learning and development opportunities, agreed channels for feedback, and effective supervision can all be achieved using technology to facilitate communications. Remembering the need for autonomy, management and leadership practices which respect individual circumstances are also critical. One size will not fit all. Understanding people’s differing needs and wants and giving them a degree of control and choice over their work will all feed into their well-being.

As the profession continues to adjust to a new hybrid way of working, being alive to the importance of solicitors’ ABCs is a crucial starting point for all law firms and organisations looking to safeguard the well-being of their staff.

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My PhD focuses on well-being in the legal profession. While the findings of this study highlight some of the ways in which employers can help to promote solicitors’ well-being, there is more to the story. Please get in touch at l.soon@bbk.ac.uk, on LinkedIn or Twitter, if you’d like to discuss this study or share your thoughts.

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The Experiences of Junior Doctors Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the rapid rise in Omicron cases in the UK, Dr Kevin Teoh, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, shares the latest findings from a study exploring junior doctors’ mental health.

Dr Kevin Teoh smiling, standing against a wall.

A big factor behind the increasing COVID-19 restrictions being (re)-implemented following the emergence of the Omicron variant is the pressure that our healthcare system is under. It is easy to see the healthcare system as this big organisation and not fully realise that its most important makeup is its people – who have their own thoughts, feeling and emotions.

In this study, we sought to better understand what that experience was like for individual doctors working during this pandemic. Over the past three years I have been working on a project led by Dr Ruth Riley at the University of Birmingham on working cultures, mental health and suicide among junior doctors in the National Health Service. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we were able to capture the experience and impact of our participants working on the front lines, and in this study we focus on interviews with fifteen junior doctors drawn from a larger online survey of 456 junior doctors.

Challenges of working during the pandemic

Here we saw participants share at a personal level strong feelings of helplessness and powerlessness – especially in relation to the exposure to death and suffering. One participant shared that: “’I’d seen a whole ward just emptied out and then refilled overnight, after people had just died. It was horrendous”. There was also significant concern not only about being infected, but about potentially infecting loved ones outside of the workplace.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic created substantial upheaval for junior doctors’ workplaces. Patients loads increased substantially while there was a distinct lack of support reported by others. The already under-staffed system was stretched even further as colleagues were infected, had to isolate or simply needed a break having exceeded their working hours.

On top of that, our junior doctors reported a new pressure in having to take on all the new information about this new virus on top of their existing heavy workloads, as this participant shared: “We were getting 20 emails a day, and every single one would have a red flag saying ‘vital, important, must read’, and you’d worry you’d missed something […] there’s so much information, it was constant, and you couldn’t switch off”.

There were changes to work practices, such as increased phone and online consultations, which not only necessitated learning new systems but also was not always conducive to the task at hand or supporting patient needs. It was also an additional source of complaint and abuse from patients who were frustrated with these new forms of consultations. Restrictions on group sizes, socialising and training also accentuated feelings that their training, support and learning needs were not being met.

Strategies of coping with the pandemic

Recognising the challenges from the pandemic, it was therefore concerning that many participants shared the inadequacy of personal coping strategies. Although these may have been useful before the pandemic, it was often felt that it was not enough during the pandemic.

Participants here shared how crying was one way of dealing with emotions. Others tried to be stoic – over time they were worn though and resigned that things were not going to get any better. This led to one participant sharing that “we’ve sort of entered a collective sort of depressive state of acceptance”.

More proactive examples had junior doctors trying to exert more control over their situation, seeking out new roles and tasks, such as getting more involved with supporting relatives which helped them feel as though were actually accomplishing something – “It wasn’t that sort of like, ‘I put lines in people and hopefully’, and then just watching them die”. Others shared about how they had to actively seek out psychological support to help them cope and prevent them from spiralling further.

Positive impact on working practices

Not all was doom, with participants also sharing positive examples of change. Crucially, some changes to work practices – such as longer rotations and working in consistent teams – led to feelings of better stability and more support. There were also examples of how less bureaucracy and more control allowed junior doctors to focus on more efficient and better ways of working with each other and for their patients.

Organisations too had to rapidly learn how to support their workers, with more access to psychological help and resources, or the provision of basic facilities being reinstated – including refreshments and rest areas. These were important given that “there were huge queues at the supermarket, and we were working 12-hour shifts, and it was unpredictable whether you could get food”.

What does this mean?

This study was an eye-opening experience into the challenges faced by junior doctors on working on the front-line at the start of the pandemic. As we enter its second year, serious questions need to be raised about how we support and retain not only junior doctors, but all workers in the healthcare system who likely have similar experiences. At the very least, a greater sense of appreciation and empathy for the work that they are doing is needed.

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How to manage age-diverse friendships in the workplace

Dr Libby Drury, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, shares the latest findings on the impact of age-diverse friendships on employee satisfaction and advice for managers on nurturing this relationship.

If you’ve ever referred to a colleague as your ‘work mum’, or found yourself at a multi-generational office party, you’ll be familiar with the way in which the workplace facilitates age-diverse friendships. 

With an ageing population and retirement ages inching ever-upwards, age gaps between employees are becoming larger. This poses a new challenge for organisations to manage the relationships between employees of different ages. 

Together with Dr Ulrike Fasbender, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, I sought to understand the possible positive and negative impact of age-diverse workplace friendships on job satisfaction and how managers could support employees in navigating this unique relationship. This research was partly supported by The British Academy [No. VF1\100674].

We surveyed 93 pairs of age-diverse co-workers to gain a greater understanding of how their friendship impacted their motivation, job satisfaction and intentions to stay with their organisation. 

What are the benefits of age-diverse friendships in the workplace? 

Our research found that age-diverse friendships had a positive effect on employees’ motivation to cooperate. 

The reason for this is rooted in Self Expansion Theory, which states that close relationships allow people to expand the self by psychologically claiming another person’s resources, perspectives and identities as one’s own. When people form meaningful friendships, the self and the other are perceived as one. 

In the case of age-diverse workplace friendships, employees may view the successes or failures of befriended colleagues as their own, so they are more motivated to work together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. 

When age-diverse friendships lead to conflict 

While age-diverse friendships support intergenerational cooperation, they also generate conflict when there are incompatible demands between the formal role of being an employee and the informal role of being a friend. This is particularly relevant for age-diverse friendships at work, where employees of different ages may possess a different status in the organisation. 

This interrole conflict is linked to reduced job satisfaction and increased intentions to look for other roles elsewhere. 

What does this mean for managers? 

Our findings show that there are both positives and negatives associated with age-diverse workplace friendships. On the one hand, such friendships boost motivation and cooperation, but the conflicting role identities of colleague and friend can put added pressure on employees, thus contributing to higher turnover. 

It is therefore important for managers to provide opportunities for age-diverse workplace friendships to develop and to put support in place to prevent interrole conflict. For example, managers could: 

1. Demonstrate support for workplace friendships 

Showing tolerance for visits and informal conversations between employees could support workplace friendships to develop. Organisations could also provide social spaces, such as informal seating in common areas or designated break rooms where employees can interact. They could also arrange gatherings for age-diverse employees to interact informally, such as celebrations of work achievements. 

2. Redesign formal organisational structures to foster collaboration between age-diverse employees 

Consider how jobs could be assigned to age-diverse employees to lead to opportunities for collaboration and friendships to develop. 

A good starting point would be to design projects where age diverse colleagues complete individual tasks in line with an overall common goal, then collectively pool task outcomes and synthesise the knowledge gained. Interacting at a deeper level during interdependent tasks helps age-diverse colleagues develop an appreciation of their deeper level similarities. 

3. Protect against interrole conflict 

It is essential for organisations to mitigate against interrole conflict to avoid the negative associations of age-diverse friendships with job satisfaction and turnover intentions. 

To do this, organisations could provide resources to allow employees to more successfully juggle their interrole conflict. They could also provide clarity and guidance via the organisations’ policies to guide employees in the dos and don’ts of age-diverse friendships at work. 

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Are COVID-19 conspiracies a threat to public health?

A collaboration between Dr Marie Juanchich, Dr Miroslav Sirota, and PhD researcher Daniel Jolles from the University of Essex and Dr Lilith A. Whiley from Birkbeck, University of London explores conspiracy theorists’ responses to public health recommendations.

Picture of a crowd with anti-vaxx posters.

Pandemics are a fertile backdrop for conspiracy theories.

As COVID-19 spread in early 2020 and uncertainty around the origins and transmission of the virus grew, conspiracy theories filled in the gaps. Social media was rife with claims that COVID-19 was an artificially created bioweapon, a plot by pharmaceutical companies to profit from vaccines – even that it was being spread across the 5G network!

At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, conspiracy-related content received greater engagement than content from sources such as the World Health Organisation and our National Health Services – a very worrisome fact.

What are the implications of this for public health?

Together with colleagues from the University of Essex Department of Psychology, I sought to understand whether this ‘infodemic’ of conspiracy theory content posed a threat to public health initiatives such as mask wearing, social distancing and take-up of the COVID-19 vaccination.

What is a conspiracy theorist?

A conspiracy theorist is someone who believes in powerful, malevolent individuals, and has low trust in government and science.

Individuals with a ‘conspiracy mindset’ have in common some general beliefs that predispose them to believe in conspiracy theories. These include:

  • Governments are evil
  • Small, secret and powerful organisations control the world order
  • These organisations cover-up the existence of extra-terrestrial life, threaten people’s health and freedom and control the flow of information

At the heart of these beliefs is the notion that ill-intentioned groups are acting behind the scenes, so trust is a key factor in conspiracy beliefs.

Some cognitive attributes might also make people more vulnerable to conspiracy beliefs. People who engage in analytical thinking, which involves a more in-depth evaluation of the information, are less likely to fall prey to misinformation.

Did conspiracy theorists follow public health initiatives in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Prior research suggests that conspiracy beliefs could prevent people from complying with public health guidance during a pandemic. For example, Oliver and Wood (2014) discovered that people who believe in HIV conspiracy theories are less likely to attend regular medical check-ups.

Previous studies also suggest that there is a negative relationship between conspiratorial beliefs and support for government COVID-19 health guidelines. However, the evidence does not provide a consistent picture. In a study by Briddlestone et al. (2020), for example, conspiracy beliefs were negatively related to social distancing, but not to hand hygiene.

We carried out three complementary studies to further understanding on the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and health protective behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some of the previous work that has been in this area, researchers investigated conspiracy theories where the virus was presented as a hoax or where its severity was exaggerated – in those cases, we could expect negative relationships with any type of health care protective behaviours. In our studies, we focused only on conspiracy theories that recognised the virus and accepted that it was ‘real’. In a series of surveys conducted at the height of the UK’s first wave, we examined to what extent participants agreed with COVID-19 conspiracy theories and how this compared to their mindset, trust in government, social characteristics, and health protective behaviours.

Key findings were:

  • A conspiracy mindset was associated with believing in COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
  • Individuals with low trust in authority and intuitive (rather than analytical) thinking styles held stronger conspiracy beliefs.
  • Individuals who were more educated or who held a conservative ideology also had stronger conspiracy beliefs.
  • People from ethnic minority groups and those who were employed as frontline workers were more likely to have conspiracy beliefs.
  • Conspiracy theory believers reported following health guidelines, such as hand washing and social distancing, as much as others, but were less likely to agree to get tested or vaccinated against the virus and more likely to share misinformation online.

The fact that conspiracy theorists comply with public health guidelines around COVID-19 but are unwilling to be tested or vaccinated for the virus, appears contradictory.

What is interesting, however, is that all the behaviours that conspiracy believers performed as much or more than other people provide autonomy and control, for example hand washing or wearing a mask. Getting tested or vaccinated, on the other hand, requires trust in others. Our results confirmed that conspiracy theory believers were reluctant to undertake actions in which they had lower levels of personal control, viewing these actions as more risky and less beneficial.

What are the implications of these findings when tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?

While conspiracy believers are frequently presented as risk takers who refuse to follow official health recommendations, our findings show that this is not the case. Conspiracy believers adhere as much, or even more, to the protective behaviours that give them a sense of personal control.

However, hesitancy around getting tested and vaccinated against COVID-19 due to a lack of trust is a cause for concern. The increased prevalence of conspiracy theories in frontline workers and individuals from ethnic minorities may explain the greater hesitancy to be vaccinated against COVID-19 observed in both of those groups.

We suggest the following recommendations that could support the uptake of public health initiatives:

  • Design communications around testing and vaccination for COVID-19 in a way that is also inclusive of conspiracy believers, for example, clearly communicating the risks and
  • Health messages to be delivered by trusted sources.
  • Promote health advice that is supportive of individual autonomy, for example, when inviting healthcare professionals for a flu vaccine.
  • Ensure transparency from pharmaceutical companies in their data sharing to increase trust.
  • Include prompts for fostering analytical thinking in COVID-19 communications to prevent the spread of false information.

Blog post written by Isobel Edwards and Dr Lilith A. Whiley.

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