Tag Archives: organizational psychology

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.

Find out more

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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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. 

Further Information 

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Introducing the Centre for Neurodiversity at Work

Accessible Summary

The Centre researchers are Almuth McDowall and Nancy Doyle. They found that science has ignored lots of important questions about neurodifferences. The found most research looked at children not adults or work. It didn’t think about race or gender or sexuality. They wanted to help.

They are working with a board who have different backgrounds. The board are neurodiverse. The Centre wants to make sure that people who are being studied are part of decisions. The Centre wants to help employers get better at including. The Centre wants to help neurodifferent people reach their potential.

Visual Summary

Infographic showing some of the key statistics shared in this blog.

What is the Centre for?

The Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work (C4NRAW) is spearheaded by the Department of Organizational Psychology in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London and Genius Within, a social enterprise focusing on HR and inclusion services. We’d like to introduce ourselves and our research priorities.

How it started

The Centre is Co-Directed by founders Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Nancy Doyle, both Organizational Psychologists known widely for their expertise in Neurodiversity and organizational psychology. This brings a holistic perspective for this important topic. They met when Almuth supervised Nancy’s PhD, which was an evaluation of coaching as a disability intervention for Dyslexic adults. The PhD included a review of neurodiversity research, in which we discovered that hardly any research is focused on adults. The small amount of funding and publications is not in balance with how many adults there are with different neurotypes. For example:

  • Even though there are almost as many people with Tourette Syndrome as Autistic people, there is almost 50 times as much research about Autistic people as Tourettes.
  • There is also 50 times more Autism research than Dyspraxia research, even though there are 5 times as many Dyspraxic people as Autistic people.
  • Around 63% of ADHD research is aimed at children.
  • 94% of Dyslexia research is aimed at children and literacy.
  • Adults have different concerns compared to children, like memory, organization, and time management skills.

We also noticed that there were very few studies looking at intersectional exclusion, by that we mean the added layers of bias and discrimination faced by those who are female, belong to the Global Ethnic Majority or LGBTQ+ communities. Autism research tended towards white cishet[1] males, frequently from privileged backgrounds. Most of the dyslexia research (60%) involved scanning the brains of kids to find the bits that are “broken!”

There were only a handful of papers related to ND[2] strengths, though we quickly summarized these and set about publishing them. We started evaluating what “works” so that we could inspire employers to provide the right support.

Our Mission

Our ongoing mission is to focus on addressing the missing research and linking it into employment practice. We want more employers to feel confident in operating neuroinclusive practices so that we can bust through the disability employment gap for invisible disability. Employers often have misconceptions about what neurodiversity means. For example, it is often assumed that dyslexia is difficulty with reading and writing, whereas it can manifest as difficulty with memory, time management, organisation and wellbeing.

Around 22% of the entire population are neurodivergent, but in the UK, just 53.6% of disabled people are currently in work, compared to 81.7% of those who are not disabled. Many more disabled people could succeed in the workplace if they were given access to reasonable adjustments.

Neurodiverse people bring unique qualities to the workplace, including creativity, focus, strategic thinking, innovation and problem-solving. We want neurodivergent adults to work at their best, more of the time. We want to reduce unnecessary barriers to work, and in work see more neurodiverse career progression.

We recently published a paper called “Diamond in the Rough” in which we set out all these research priorities and how we would like to tackle them. Please feel free to click through to our research page if you would like to learn more about what we’ve already achieved.

Centre Membership

Our ambition is for the Centre to be staffed and led by a neurodiverse team: that is a balance of generalists and specialists complementing each other. Nancy is an ADHDer, and we have an Advisory Board which is comprised of researchers, practitioners and those with lived experience. We are currently seeking representation from the LGBTQ+ community, do feel free to reach out, the Board meet twice a year to review research priorities and advise the Directors on ethics and sharing results.

We have several ND PhD and professional doctorate students who are part of the Centre by virtue of studying a Neurodiversity or Disability (including neurodiversity) focused PhD at Birkbeck[3]. They are Uzma Waseem, Charlie Ekton, Jessica Dark, Greg Swaysland and Ben Morris.

We’ll be using this blog to communicate our research findings in an accessible format and start conversations with our wider community. We’ll post calls for research participants and would like to work with our donor team on corporate funding for specific projects. Do feel free to reach out and to join our mailing list if you haven’t already!

We are working towards a world where neurominorities equal specialism rather than exclusion and work is neuroinclusive. We are pioneering the design, evaluation, and practical implementation of Universal Design for Human Resources. We are walking our own talk and making sure that there is “nothing about us without us” in ND research at work. And we are super excited to only just be getting started!

Further Information

[1] “Cis” meaning not transgender and “het” meaning heterosexual.

[2] We’re going to use ND as an abbreviation for neurodifferent / neurodivergent / neurodiverse as we know all three of these can be preferred. We also use Neurominorities as an umbrella term for ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Tourettes and more.

[3] Birkbeck was established with the sole purpose of educating working people through flexible education scheduled so that people who are in work can take part. Therefore social justice has always been at the heart of Birkbeck’s mission.

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Hypermasculine organisations and barriers to women’s career progression in Nigeria

Dr Vanessa Iwowo shares the findings from her latest research into gender inequality in the workplace in Nigeria.

Discussions around the barriers to women’s career progression are not new to the public agenda, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the unequal division of domestic labour and caring responsibilities in the home.

However, the majority of research in this area has been developed in the global north and thus overlooks the significance of specific economic, social and cultural conditions that exist in other contexts.

With my colleagues Toyin Ajibade Adisa (University of East London), Chima Mordi and Ruth Simpson (Brunel University), I sought to uncover the specific barriers facing women’s career progression in Nigeria.

Why Nigeria? Often referred to as the “giant of Africa”, the country is notable both for its economic prosperity and entrenched patriarchal values. The barriers to women advancing their careers in Nigeria could have wider implications for gender equality in the global south.

Gender inequality and Social Dominance Theory

Despite legislation which supports gender equality and Nigeria’s participation in international agreements to eliminate gender discrimination, the problem persists. Prior research into 190 Nigerian companies found that just 10.5% of board seats are held by women. In the civil service, where women account for 24% of the workforce, they hold less than 14% of overall management positions.

Examined through the lens of Social Dominance Theory (SDR), which purports that social groups are hierarchically positioned, we see how cultural ideologies and institutional discrimination work together to produce group-based inequality. A gender-based hierarchy dominates, where men are consistently favoured, gaining disproportionate positive social and material value at the expense of the subordinate group, women.

This group-based oppression is driven by systemic individual and institutional discrimination and supported by stereotypes, attitudes and beliefs which dictate the norms that govern institutions. These hierarchies are especially hard to break down as they are embedded in social systems.

Challenges to career advancement faced by women in Nigeria

Entrenched stereotypical attitudes about the role of women in Nigeria means that management and leadership are viewed as the exclusive domain of men, while women are seen to belong in the domestic sphere.

This hypermasculine context only serves to exacerbate the barriers faced by women in their careers. In interviews with 43 women working in the five major administrative capitals of Nigeria, we identified three key barriers to progression at work:

  1. Systemic and excessive male-group-based domination

Every woman that we spoke to identified a bias in recruitment and promotion decisions in their organisation, which inhibits women’s progression to more senior roles. An approach based on merit is overruled by a preference for a male candidate, regardless of capability. What is more, this bias is openly acknowledged, with the allocation of male candidates to senior roles seen as a foregone conclusion.

  1. Corruption and the exchange of favours

The vast majority of women that we spoke to (39 out of 43 interviewees) had personally encountered corruption in the workplace in the form of “godfatherism”, the practice wherein a woman is expected to exchange money or sexual favours for progression in the workplace.

The consequences of godfatherism are both devastating and wide-reaching: either a woman is cut off from career advancement, or she is coerced into a sexual relationship in order to progress. Such is the commonality of this practice, that the promotion of a woman is often associated with this exchange in the eyes of employees.

  1. Domestic responsibilities

The expectation that women will take full responsibility for domestic arrangements is entrenched from a young age, when girls are made to take on household responsibilities while boys are left to play. A few women also reported being overlooked for a university education in the family, due to the assumption that this was an unnecessary expense for them to fulfil their predetermined roles as wives and mothers.

A unique national context

Our research suggests that Nigerian women are being held back in their careers by discrimination and corruption particular to their national context, such as entrenched patriarchal values, assumptions about the role of women and ingrained cultural and religious beliefs.

While male dominance and barriers to women’s career progression are not unique to Nigeria, the way in which patriarchal structures are embedded across all systems and institutions is particular to the national context.

For example, there are some potential commonalities to be drawn between godfatherism and the western #MeToo movement. However, where corruption in the west is widely challenged, godfatherism is normalised. Indeed, it forms part of a wider cultural context in which it is seen as fundamentally “un-African” for a woman to lead.

Aside from denying women the right to self-actualization and economic independence, hypermasculine organisations which exploit and enforce entrenched gender roles are limited by a lack of diversity in the workforce. Social Dominance Theory would suggest that the way to overcome these barriers is through challenging the status quo and “mainstreaming” hierarchy-attenuating attitudes from non-dominant groups. A deeper understanding of these attitudes and how they manifest in the workplace may go some way towards challenging entrenched beliefs and practices and working towards a more equal future.

This blog is based on the paper ‘Social dominance, hypermasculinity and career barriers in Nigeria’ in Gender, Work & Organization.

Further Information

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