"Even with a mental health problem, a long, satisfying legal career is possible"

Joanne Theodoulou is a successful in-house lawyer at the top of her game. Not only is she an experienced legal leader in financial services, she is also a trustee of mental health charity Mind. She shares how you can prosper in the legal professional despite a mental health problem, and how organisations and leaders need to look after their employees.

I joined Linklaters as a trainee in 1996 after doing a vacation scheme with the firm. I did a training seat in New York and qualified into capital markets in 1998, later specialising in structured financial products.

After 15 great years in private practice, I left to start my in-house career. I joined Simply Business in 2018 as general counsel and company secretary, following stints in a bank and at a fintech start up.

At Simply Business I look after the legal, risk and compliance and data protection teams. I’m also the company secretary and sit on the executive management team.

My diary can be very meeting heavy and there’s no typical week. The variety of my role is what I enjoy most, and it is what keeps it interesting. Issues can crop up from anywhere and my advice is sought on a range of things.

Outside the day job, I sit on the board of the mental health charity Mind. I’ve always had an interest in mental health and mental illness given a history of mental illness in my family, and my own bipolar diagnosis.

In private practice, one of the biggest challenges was the long hours and unpredictability of the work. I need be protective of my sleep to maintain my health, but as a junior lawyer I regularly had to work into the night.

Now, working late night is a thing of the past. Fortunately, I have much more control over my diary, with flexibility as to when and where I work. This helps enormously.

What Simply Business does well

Simply Business does a lot to support workplace wellbeing.

Each year, we run a week-long “Wellfest”, for which we organise speakers and workshops on a range of themes such as nutrition, menopause, alcohol, financial wellbeing and mental health.

We add recordings of the sessions to our wellbeing resources that we keep on our Intranet.

We all have access to Unmind, a mental health platform that empowers staff to proactively improve their mental wellbeing.

We have a comprehensive employee assistance programme, through which our people can access counselling, and have a number of qualified mental health first aiders in the business.

We provide mental health awareness training for all our people managers, and they are also encouraged to carry our “stress risk assessments” with anyone in their team who appears to be struggling.

We hate the idea of ‘wellbeing washing’ and regularly assess the impact of what we’re doing through surveying our employees.

Data is a big part of what Simply Business does around mental health, and we gather data on everything.

We can see what resources people are using, what events are valued, what initiatives are appreciated and working, and then we use that to know where to put future efforts.

We also do smaller but meaningful things. For example, we introduced ‘Zoom-free’ Friday mornings during lockdown, and after looking at data and polling our people we decided to keep them.

What managers must do for their employees

It’s important for line managers to be able to handle conversations about mental health and mental health problems.

Managers don’t need to be mental health experts, but they should be able to listen with empathy and to signpost help to their colleagues and line reports. If they feel comfortable, leaders can lead by example and share their own mental health stories with staff too.

All of this can help to create a positive environment in which colleagues feel comfortable disclosing any mental health problems or challenges if they need to.

Everyone, including line managers, should be mindful of the language they use to talk about mental health. In the workplace, it’s important to distinguish between mental health and wellbeing.

The term wellbeing encompasses all aspects of “being well” such as financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing, emotional wellbeing. However, mental health is about the health of our mind, it affects how we think, feel and act.

Someone who has poor mental health may not be able to function as they’d like, they may be unable to make decisions, think clearly or cope with difficult emotions. They may also not be able to sleep, or will sleep too much, or lack energy to do daily tasks.

People need to understand that there is a spectrum with positive mental health on one side, and mental illness on the other.

Most people spend most of the time somewhere in the middle, generally mentally healthy, with periods of feeling better or worse. Mental wellbeing tends to focus on the positive end and looks at preventative measures to stay mentally well.

People often talk about “mental health” when they actually mean poor mental health, or mental illness. Mental health is great – it’s what we all aspire to have.

If you’re starting out in law and worried about how your mental health could hold you back: what should you do?

Embarking on a career in law can be a daunting prospect for anyone. But you may have particular concerns if you have a mental health problem. If you do, do your best to seek treatment: be open to talking therapies, medication or lifestyle adjustments – whatever works to keep you healthy.

Most importantly, know that there are plenty of people in law out there like you. A long, satisfying legal career is possible: find the support you need and pace yourself.

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