Jack RiisfeldtMay 19, 2024

VARIO FROM PINSENT MASONS and Connect Media gathered leading national General Counsel in defiance of the enduring stigma surrounding mental health in Corporate Australia. The General Counsel in attendance had a depth of varied experience across both in-house and private practice settings, and should be complimented for the level of candour and vulnerability displayed in a conversation that relied heavily on lived experiences.

Together, we interrogated a number of interwoven challenges, including: diverging generational approaches to communication and privacy; confronting the failings of reflexive institutional responses and entrenched attitudes towards mental health; reconciling competing responsibilities to the individual and the organisation as an entity; moving beyond processes and demonstrating leadership through modelled behaviour; and creating support networks at the heights of corporate leadership.

There’s a line somewhere between this is a requirement of the job, plus I want to be concerned for you. I’m not saying the word ‘snowflake’ lightly, but you do think, you’ve got yourself into this job that does have a particular mental resilience required, and you’re not coping. How do I deal with that?

We are in the midst of a communication paradigm shift. Millennials and Generation Z are always notified, always plugged in; symptomatic of an intergenerational divide in the ways we communicate. The digital platforms that carry our identities and communications are at once a site of unprecedented connectivity and extreme isolation, where voices are both amplified and suffocated in a volatile fashion. Constant exposure to the world stage builds resolve, knowledge and community, all the while threatening fatigue and disillusionment. Users are constantly torn between narcissism and envy, validation and obscurity.

It is exceedingly difficult for different generations to understand each other given that the fabric of communication has shifted so remarkably in such a short amount of time. But understanding the ways these platforms influence our communication and behaviour is key to advancing mental health practices in corporate Australia. On a practical level, these international differences complicate a number of decisions that General Counsel must navigate; walking the line between privacy and intervention, and resolving competing responsibility for the individual and the organisation.

I did also have to understand that I am actually the boss in this situation and the manager. I’m not a family member and it’s not my problem to solve.

General Counsel are tasked with unravelling interwoven lines of responsibility in the mental health space. The most clearly defined of these is the duty of care to employees, guided by legislation, the common law, and generally augmented by a number of internal structures and processes. However, as this duty of care extends to all employees – and appreciating the ripple effect one individual can have on an entire work environment – General Counsel are often burdened with a judgement call that weighs the interests of one individual against a group and the company itself.

Layered atop this considered judgement is the paramount line at which the individual must assume responsibility to manage their own circumstance, as well as the line that General Counsel must draw for their own mental wellbeing. These two forces are elusive, and are often in a tidal push and pull against one another.

To better understand these responsibilities we can draw comparisons to physical illness or injury. Physical injury is, in many cases, easily identifiable. The corporate response is similarly unambiguous; accommodate the individual, making omissions and modifications that enable the employee to continue performing their role on the path to recovery. No expectation is cast on the business to fix the injury, nor are they implicated in its cause. But in matters of mental health, these distinctions are rarely possible. The line between facilitating employees getting well and direct intervention is often obscure. As to the question of origin – which bears directly on the organisations accountability and responsibility – exactly how much has the work environment contributed? To what extent can the legal load be blamed? It soon becomes clear that businesses bear a striking resemblance to healthcare systems around the world; they have been designed, and become highly efficient at, treating acute injuries, but labour under the pressure of delivering chronic care.

How can General Counsel begin to navigate these competing responsibilities while mitigating harmful, contributing factors? A collective response is required; we must consider how legal workload impacts behaviour, before identifying and enacting a series of cultural changes.

I still feel like I need to justify what I’m doing every minute of the day in six minute units, and I haven’t been a law firm lawyer for ten years.

We are all, as a result of either environmental conditioning or our fundamental nature, concerned with the measurement of self-worth. Law firms depend on six minute units as a gauge for this act – an inherently transactional and reductive prescription of value. This endemic reliance on time-based billables moulds behaviour; every minute must be accounted for and justified, capacity inclines perilously towards shame – there is no time for the self. There is a lack of creativity among firms – and a lack of bravery from clients – to disrupt costings, while the options for recognition outside these parameters are not well understood.

The dilemma, simply put, is ‘how do we give people something to hold onto, to give that sense of peace that they’re achieving in the workplace, without it being timesheets of titles?’ Or, phrased more bluntly, ‘how do I knock the law firm out of you?’

Someone sent me a bunch of flowers because I helped them with a contract, and I said to them “You didn’t have to do that, that’s my job”, and she said, “But I’m really grateful”. Never in my whole career had anyone given me flowers for doing my job, and I will always remember that.

The positive aftershocks sparked by small signs of recognition are often underestimated. Something as seemingly innocuous as flowers, or as plain as recognition in a public email or forum, can trigger a ripple effect that reverberates across the workplace to create open spaces of conversation. For one attendee, travel credit was a powerful recognition of the often unnoticed contribution that family members and partners make in delivering business outcomes.

By humanising the contribution and formally recognising that employees have an identity and draw meaning from more than just their work, organisations can begin to create authentic spaces of communication. These are all examples of how businesses can begin to move beyond processes and modelling authentic behaviour at a senior level.

We’ve gone through the evolution of having some very defined processes and procedures, and moving onto the next level which involves actually modelling behaviour at a really senior level. We are starting to have some interesting conversation where senior members of the team will actually be vulnerable and disclose challenges that they’ve had in their lives.

General Counsel must be acutely aware of the leadership shadow they cast. Leading by example and creating time to nurture your own mental health implicitly gives permission for your staff to do the same. Simple actions such as leaving loudly and working remotely engender trust and empower employees to take greater control of their own work life balance.

It’s a little bit like the flight attendants on a turbulent plane, isn’t it? You always look at them and see, are they panicking?

Leaders feel inherent pressure to put forward a calm and stoic persona. As you climb the leadership hierarchy, you naturally lose the collegiate support that junior peers enjoy. There is a resounding, yet rarely spoken of, isolation that strikes at the heights of leadership, with commitments geared towards the wellbeing of staff compromising time taken for the self.

I was sort of the conduit between the executive and the staff and I felt that if they saw me crumble, I was the rock and so they couldn’t see me crumble, because they were putting their faith in me to keep calm and carry on.

It takes a great deal of courage to provide an authentic reaction as a leader, to give your team permission to actually feel that way as well. Junior employees must be cognisant of the fact that mental wellbeing is not bound by age, and that they too have a role to play in shaping the environments they inhabit.


General Counsel play a vital role in advancing wellness practices. It is crucial that General Counsel demonstrate leadership through authentic modelled behaviour, creating a culture of open dialogue at the height of leadership that trickles down through the entire enterprise. By creating a safe environment that encourages honest conversation, General Counsel can begin to combat the stigma associated with mental health. They must be acutely aware of how legal workloads and policies impact behaviour, and actively provide forms of recognition that humanise employees. General Counsel must equally understand that their duty of care towards employees is not infinite, that their seniority can be isolating, and that time must be taken to manage their own welfare – even if this requires looking outside the organisation for external support. Rather than approaching wellness as a site of competitive advantage, it is encouraging that organisations are shaping a collective response to mental health issues; sharing resources and knowledge to advance wellness practices.