Debra Frank Montero, regional vice president with Robert Half Legal, in Miami. Debra Frank Montero, regional vice president with Robert Half Legal, in Miami.

Happy employees are good for business, according to a Robert Half study on workplace happiness, It’s Time We All Work Happy™.  They’re more loyal, productive, healthier and motivated to contribute to their company’s bottom line. This should cause legal employers’ ears to perk up—especially when combined with another message in the report that may not be all that surprising: Legal professionals report the highest stress levels of all fields surveyed.

Does stress affect happiness? Of course it does. So the question now for employers is how do we reduce stress among a group for whom it has long been considered part and parcel? Other Robert Half research supports not only the idea that stress is rampant among legal professionals but that it has also increased over the years. In a 2017 survey, 42 percent of attorneys cited reduced stress levels as the one aspect of their job they would change, an 11-point increase since a similar survey was conducted in 2008.

Why the increase? From our observation, the jump is likely due to two key factors:

  • Larger workloads brought on by escalating business demands; and
  • Technology enabling us to increase output and stay connected.

What Can Employers Do About It?

To help reduce workplace stress, companies are increasingly providing health and wellness offerings like standing desks, complimentary gym memberships, organized health programs and more. In Miami particularly, there’s a movement within the legal profession to practice mindfulness. The University of Miami School of Law even provides a program on mindfulness in law.

While nearly half of all attorneys surveyed (48 percent) say insurance defense is the top driver of job growth within the litigation practice area, it’s also an area with significant burnout-induced turnover. Contributing factors include exceedingly high billable hour requirements and a lack of challenging projects. Retention in this growing practice area is essential and, in keeping with our research, solutions lie with employers. Here is some insight into what can be done:

First of all, a fact: Lawyers surveyed by Robert Half Legal said that, aside from compensation or bonus, their top three incentives for remaining with an employer are:

  • Flexible work arrangements (28 percent)
  • Challenging work or variety of assignments (26 percent)
  • Professional development opportunities (20 percent)

Per No. 1 above, it’s clear legal professionals need to be able to balance the responsibilities of their professional and personal lives. To attract and retain the best talent, law firms and companies in Miami are promoting perks and benefits prized by job seekers:

  • Telecommuting options—firms are allowing employees to work remotely for up to 40 percent of their full-time schedules with no reduction to salary or benefits;
  • Parental leave for both parents;
  • Dependent care reimbursement;
  • Pro bono hours to give back to the community; and
  • More casual work environments (common with smaller firms).

No. 2 and 3 above suggest that job seekers are also interested in advancing their careers. Firms offering professional development programs, challenging work and variety of assignments are highly successful in boosting recruitment and reducing turnover. Including team members in projects that are new to them is a great way to help them expand their skills while gaining new ideas and perspectives. It also breaks the monotony of their everyday routine and keeps them more engaged.

The Importance of Feeling Appreciated

Our workplace happiness report also included responses from legal professionals across North America regarding the top drivers of their happiness in the office. Their number-one answer: feeling appreciated for the work they do.

Employers don’t have to break the bank to instill loyalty among employees. Simply showing appreciation for your staff’s hard work and dedication has a much greater motivational impact than many people realize. The key for managers is to express gratitude in ways that are sincere, specific and timely:

  • Do provide specific feedback. Offer prompt appreciation! Tie it to the specific act as closely as possible.
  • Do say ‘thank you’ effectively. Hand-written notes add a personal touch and can make the recipient feel more appreciated. An email shared with the team that highlights someone’s efforts is another way to encourage employees.
  • Don’t be a downer. If you must address an issue critically, be as constructive as possible.
  • Don’t be vague. Attempts at recognizing employees can backfire if they are unclear (“You’re such a hard worker”) or delivered late (“Nice work the other day”).

It’s not easy. But remolding your work environment to support work-life balance and frequent appreciation for your employees is possible, even in the legal world where billable hours are king.

Debra Frank Montero is regional vice president of Robert Half Legal, the premier provider of experienced project and full-time professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments in South Florida.