Melinda Upton, DLA Piper

Published Thu, Sep 10, 2020

I’ve seen first-hand the damage and pain that poor mental health can cause. One story about a colleague, in particular, fuels my drive to make a difference.

He was preoccupied with the personal and professional expectations of what a lawyer ‘should be’. He was a perfectionist: falling short was seen as a failure.

But stigma and shame prevented him from talking about his struggles. He suppressed his emotions and suffered in silence.

Over time it became clear he wasn’t coping. I decided I needed to intervene. It was one of the most difficult conversations of my career.

He told me he was often paralysed with fear – but fear with no apparent cause. He confessed his anxiety-driven surges of adrenalin were so strong he took potentially harmful physical risks.

We put a care plan in place that allowed him to take time out and seek professional help. In time, he was able to make a successful transition back to work.

And even though the story ended well, I still reflect on whether things could have been different.

What if he had spoken up sooner? What if people around him – myself included – had asked ‘are you okay?’ when we first noticed problems.

I carry these questions with me as a reminder to always be open, vulnerable and vigilant.

Okay to not be okay

Mental health issues among lawyers are alarmingly high. It’s estimated that around 30 per cent suffer disability and distress due to depression.

At DLA Piper, we recognise that positive change needs to be championed from the top. Our Global co-CEO, Simon Levine, is a strong supporter of mental wellness across the firm.

We also try and humanise the workplace as much as possible. Leaders are encouraged to lead from the front and make talking about mental health normal. We also encourage people to connect with others.

By showing our vulnerability as leaders, we teach to our people that it’s okay to not be okay. We start to erode the barriers that have kept people silent for so long.

I feel incredibly proud that I work at a firm where having these conversations is part of our strategy.

Accelerate change, focus on prevention

It’s also why I jumped at the chance to join Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia.

The Alliance has the potential to really accelerate a change in the way Australia approaches workplace mental health.

Its reach extends not only to the workforces of its members but also to the workforces of other companies and stakeholder groups that they interact with. The footprint that we can have across Australia is substantial.

The other exciting opportunity for me is the chance to focus on the preventative or ‘upstream’ part of workplace wellness.

In addition to improving the way we triage and intervene; wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could also collaborate and innovate around keeping people mentally healthy in the first place?

Melinda Upton, Partner, Global Co-Chair IPT, DLA Piper

Board Member, Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia

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