Kizzy Augustin, Partner at Russell-Cooke tells us about her experience at This Can Happen 2018.
Q. Why did you decide to attend This Can Happen 2018?
A. Having known Zoe from our previous interaction in providing courses for the Family Support Network at our law firm, I was aware that the issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing kept coming up as a topic that employees wanted to discuss more openly. Once I had moved to another law firm as a Partner, where I am now one of many Partners responsible for the progress of our firm and the retention of competent, happy and healthy employees, I decided that it was sensible to attend a conference that could provide me with some practical solutions on how best to support our workforce, while doing what we can to keep up with what others in our industry are doing to address workplace mental health and wellbeing. This conference certainly did not disappoint!
Q. What did you come away with?
A. Some of the key takeaway lessons for me included the need to treat mental health as seriously as we treat physical health. I am a Health and Safety lawyer and much of my practice has involved the defence of companies and individuals that have allegedly breached health and safety legislation in some way and this normally centres around a physical injury (or at the very least, the risk of physical injury). There should be a shift in thinking about the potential impact on an employee’s mental health after being involved in a workplace incident. Also, listening to the Duke of Cambridge was inspiring in the sense that he has gone through some difficult experiences in the public eye and his comments (as well as those from retired police sergeant Edwards Simpson) were helpful in finding ways to manage employee mental health without simply just ticking a box, and we should genuinely care about our employees by looking after them and investing in their wellbeing. Finally, the importance of taking the time to communicate with the younger members of our team is key to understand how we should work in the future – we clearly need to create a culture of being open, supportive and transparency and this is how we will continue to attract the best new talent.
Q. Why do you think it is important for us to be having conversations about mental health in the workplace?
A. If we don’t openly address issues surrounding mental health in the workplace, we may lose good members of staff – not just because they may be suffering from occupational stress issues but because we are not keeping up with the rest of our industry and in fact, not keeping up with the rest of the UK generally. There is definite movement towards creating a work environment that fosters active communication and support between senior management and the more junior members of staff. As many have said before, ‘look after your employees and they will look after you.’ That starts with taking away the stigma that has been historically attached to mental health.
Q. How does mental health coincide with the Health and Safety side of your practice?
A. As I suggested before, there has been recent talk about looking at mental as well as physical health when addressing potential breaches of health and safety legislation. In the past, any issues surrounding occupational stress could result in a civil claim for negligence, which may end in compensation being paid to the person that has suffered. In the future, I can see the possibility of criminal prosecutions being pursued following an occupational mental health related incident. I have certainly represented companies that have had close calls – being investigated for corporate manslaughter following the suicide of a stressed employee and investigations into the working practices of a university following complaints of students suffering health problems as a result of the pressures of onerous examination and coursework requirements. Given the rise in the level of fines for health and safety breaches over the last couple of years, where the culpability of an organisation and the seriousness of harm risked are key factors to be taken into account, I can’t see why the impact on an employee’s mental health wouldn’t be another significant factor in the future.