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LCN Says

Is e-presenteeism a problem for the legal sector?

updated on 17 February 2022

A job in the legal industry used to mean office working, long hours and inflexible days. And while many law firms no longer subscribe to those out-dated ideals and have fully embraced agility and the technology required to enable this agility, some firms (and many other businesses too) still face some outdated attitudes and working practices.

As the covid-19 induced lockdowns meant many lawyers worked from home, people thought the sector would be changed forever. But working from home during the pandemic proved to many that it could be done successfully. Would this mean the end of long hours and less presenteeism in the sector?

What is ‘presenteeism’?

While there have been positive changes in many law firms, presenteeism still reigns in lots of workplace cultures and with the rise of working from home, it’s simply switched to being an online rather than in-person issue and arguably, the problem could be felt more keenly.

‘Presenteeism’ is, simply put, the idea of turning up to work even though you’re unwell or feeling you always need to be working or available to work. It’s not just a problem that leads to burnout, exhaustion and mental health issues, it also costs a company. The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism from mental ill-health alone costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum, nearly double the cost of absenteeism. In 2019, a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 80% of British employees still continue to work when they are unwell and that young people were the most likely to persist in working when sick, with 92% of 18-24-year-olds admitting to still showing up at the office.

And e-presenteeism?

‘E-presenteeism’ is simply switching the problem online. Without the opportunity to commute, pop down in the lift to get a coffee or travel to external meetings, the time you have available to ‘present’ yourself is even greater, especially when you consider the average commute is 58 minutes a day, equating to 27 days a year according to the Trades Union Congress. Figures from the Mental Health Foundation showed that a few months into lockdown, office workers were clocking up an estimated 28 hours of unpaid overtime each month.

Without having to jump on a train, see people in real life or even get dressed, it’s easier than ever to keep working. There’s no longer a good reason to not have back-to-back meetings scheduled and for those familiar with Microsoft Teams, the telling traffic light system lets people know how active you’re being on the system.

But it’s a bad habit and it’s worrying that those just starting out in their careers are more likely to feel they need to work when they’re feeling unwell, burnt out or just to keep up with colleagues who are doing the same.

How can law firms tackle this growing trend?

Being aware of the problem and tackling the ‘always on’ culture, which is leading to this e-presenteeism, is often the first step for firms to challenge and break these habits. Monitoring working hours and addressing long days is also a simple way to help tackle the problem head-on.

For those lawyers starting their career and feeling they always need to be available, it’s advisable to speak to more senior members of the team and ask for some clear parameters to be set around working hours, workload and breaks. Making sure holidays are taken is also important to ensure you get an opportunity to recharge.

At Vario (Pinsent Masons LLP) we’ve long spoken about the benefits of agile working as a freelancer and how it can create not just improved work life opportunities for lawyers but an opportunity for more control and variety in a legal career. Along the way, we’ve learned that true flexibility and agility is achieved only when clear parameters are put in place and a lawyer never feels like they must always be ‘on’. If you’re never ‘off’ you can’t relax or give yourself a chance to think creatively – a curse to productivity.

Matthew Kay is a partner and managing director of Vario at Pinsent Masons.