According to at least one report, lawyers have had some of the highest rates of depression going around[i]. Maybe it’s the long hours to keep up billable hours or the all-consuming nature of the law practice that requires extended periods of concentration and keeps them isolated from colleagues, friends and family. When compared to other professionals, it’s the legal eagles who are sacrificing more than just time to get the job done.
Whatever the cause, it’s a serious problem. But thankfully this can be partly overcome in the design and management of the legal workplace. We know that group support, social activities and friends all have a role to play in treating depression. But how can the design of a workplace address depression?
There are three things to consider:
1. Food to create a culture of sharing
We know that the simple act eating brings people together. Therefore, it makes sense that a possible solution for better health and greater social interaction is to assign designated space that allows people to commune over a meal. Some companies go so far as to ban eating at the desk or offer catered meals for people working long hours. And this is where the magic happens, because therein lies the potential to do more than just bring people together physically. It might even start them talking, sharing experiences and break down silos between practice groups.
2. Pathways that lead to greater connectivity
Working in a rabbit warren of offices makes it really easy for someone to be hidden away in quiet desperation. Designing circulation paths to encourage social interaction is one tactic. A typical Italian town is a great example of how this works: All the paths and roads lead to the central piazza and the main center of social activity: the church. It’s a natural place for people to bump into one another, check up on friends and relatives, and be seen.
Replicating this principle when planning an office can work. The circulation paths around the office and, in some cases the interconnecting spaces, can be can be the streets and pathways. The common breakout area: the piazza. Interconnecting stairs and atrium also give a visual clue that you are part of a bigger community.
3. The mutual benefits of mentoring
Our new generation of lawyers need guidance. This is really important for those who’ve probably grown up with a formal mentoring program at school. More than likely they haven’t been to the “School of Hard Knocks” instead. They expect help developing their skills and progressing their career, and they need a mentor to help them do this. Paired offices or even open-plan offices where a partner and an associate share the same space is a great way to encourage mentoring. When you mentor someone, you also get something back: the satisfaction of helping someone else. This in itself is a great way to improve your own mental health.
So, these are three things that can be built into the design of a workplace to facilitate mental wellness. There are many opportunities to keep our people healthy and happy while performing at their peak. The next major step is for those responsible for nurturing the legal field to take up the challenge and transform the legal work space.
As National Director of Workplace Strategy and Design for Colliers International in Australia, Peter is a workplace strategist and qualified architect with over 25 years’ experience in workplace and base building design, working with clients ranging from Bauer Media Group, AT Kearney, Ricoh, ANZ Bank and Citrix.