Wellbeing in a culture of billable hours & client pressures

Toni Graves_51 (1)

Toni Graves is law firm Allen & Overy’s Global Head of Reward and Wellbeing. Billable hours & client pressures are thought, by some in the legal industry, to be incompatible with wellbeing, but Graves is determined to shift perceptions.

She is working to move the focus to the fact that optimal wellbeing is – rather than incompatible – actually fundamental to both individual and organisational high-performance. This is why she’s speaking on this topic at our sister event the Watercooler in London next week, on the 25 & 26 April at Excel.

We caught up with her ahead of her appearance to get a flavour of what she’ll be talking about.

You started out as an accountant, is that right, before moving into HR?

Yes. I worked as an accountant for PwC for about seven years. Then I moved into some HR roles and the idea had been to get HR experience, then move into the HR consulting business. But I never did, because I enjoyed what I was doing.

Later, I specialised in rewards because I had a finance background, so it made sense and I enjoyed this a lot. I joined my current law firm, Allen & Overy, in 2016 as Head of Reward. Shortly after joining, I took on responsibility for wellbeing, which is also a global role.

Was that the first time that wellbeing had been brought into a role?

Yes. We had some great wellbeing-related benefits on offer before that – like an on-site wellbeing centre, a gym, a GP, a dental nurse, etc – but what we hadn’t done was look at wellbeing from a more preventative and early intervention perspective. It was the first time one person had been given overall responsibility for all the elements of wellbeing, whereas before it was carved out between, for example, the employee relations team and the diversity team, etc.

I’m guessing one of your strengths is bringing numerical and financial rigour to wellbeing, something that is sometimes criticised as lacking in the industry?

Yeah, definitely, that rigour is important. The Holy Grail would be to be able to calculate the return on investment of all of the different interventions you put in place. We are a way off that. But we have definitely made progress in the last few months, particularly.

We have certain measures in place. We’ve agreed with our executive committee that we will have a firm-wide goal around wellbeing. This links to the question that we ask our people in our staff engagement survey: does A&O provide an environment that promotes positive mental wellness?

That’s very much about measuring an outcome. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that we can tie it back to individual interventions but, hopefully, it shows us that everything we’re doing is taking us in the right direction.

And you do this on a global basis?

Yes. We’re going through a process now of working with every one of our 40+ offices. My team and I are working with them to put in place a formalised, local wellbeing plan. We’ve come up with some minimum standards that we want all of our offices to be able to meet, and then there are some more aspirational goals.

We’re very much encouraging them, and working with them, to set KPIs that align to their specific wellbeing goals locally, which we review with them.

At the Watercooler, you’re talking about shifting the perception of wellbeing from a ‘nice to have’ to an essential element of performance, success and a critical part of everyone’s role. Do you feel that shift has already happened, or is happening, in your company and in the legal profession?

I hate to use this word but… every organisation is different and every organisations is on a ‘journey’.

When we started ours, around six years ago, some people were uncomfortable even just using the words ‘mental health’. So, initially it was about starting conversations before it moved to tackling stigma more directly. We’ve had real people, telling real stories, to raise everyone’s understanding. Then we’ve done tailored interventions like manager training.

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Now we’re at the point where, in order to get to the next level, we need to take stock. We had people internally saying to us ‘how can we improve wellbeing when we work in this incredibly tough, challenging, high pressure environment? The two things aren’t compatible’.

We decided to refocus the way we talk about wellbeing. Instead of it being a trade off between wellbeing and business success, we are bringing optimal wellbeing and positive mental health together as key drivers of healthy, sustainable high performance. The message is that to do our best, we need to be at our best, which puts wellbeing at the centre of business strategy.

How do you then shift the perception to this?

It’s a tough one.

What we’re looking at now is making sure that we pay as much attention to how the organisation and the working environment need to evolve as to individual interventions.

We can try and help people to develop the tools, knowledge and understanding to look after their own wellbeing, but we also need to focus on the environment that people are working in.

We’ve signed up to the Mindful Business Charter and been having discussions with lawyers and support staff about the sources of stress, especially unnecessary stress. What are the things that perhaps other people are doing, that lead to additional stress that honestly doesn’t need to be there?

We’re focusing on the fact that every one of us has a role to play. Wellbeing isn’t something that’s ‘done’ for us or ‘to’ us. We’ve all got a role to play. Every time we have an interaction with another team member, that interaction could be a positive one, or a negative one. It’s getting people to think about the influence and the impact that we can have on each other. And how, if we get that, it has a massive, massive impact.

What challenges have you encountered?

The difficulty for us is that we are in a client-led environment and that comes with certain pressures.

It’s about trying to find the things that we control.

One of the challenges is that people will immediately go to the things that are beyond our control. We try and get employees to focus on the things that are within their control, developing the confidence to have conversations around these things.

If a client has set what seems to be a very unreasonable deadline, for example, is there a conversation that could happen to address that? Some of our partners do that very well and it’s about giving more employees more confidence to do that more often.

To meet Toni in person, and to contribute to the conversation, come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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