With burnout all too common in the legal profession, Tauranga-based barrister Genevieve Haszard is passionate about promoting wellbeing across the industry. And with support from MAS, she helped to bring the mental health message to this year’s New Zealand Bar Association Conference.
Immersed in law for more than two decades, Genevieve Haszard’s career has taken her from coronial inquiries and criminal cases to family disputes and appeals on both sides of the Tasman. Now a member of Kate Sheppard Chambers, one of New Zealand’s first virtual chambers, it’s safe to say she loves her job. But over the years, she’s also seen first-hand some of the darker sides to the profession.
“From my perspective, wellbeing is really lacking in the legal sector,” she says. “We have a high proportion of practitioners who have taken their own lives, people who have died prematurely from health issues left unchecked and challenges with managing stress, high expectations and demanding workloads.”
It’s a deeply ingrained issue with no easy fix, but as a mentor for young lawyers, a member of the New Zealand Bar Association Council and committee member for the annual New Zealand Bar Association Conference, Genevieve’s driven to make a difference. And at this year’s conference, she made sure wellness got some of the spotlight.
Genevieve Haszard is on a mission to promote wellness in the legal profession.
With sponsorship from MAS, psychiatrist and comedian Dr Joanna Prendergast led a session on practical ways to improve mental health, and an art exhibition by talented barristers highlighted the joy of creative hobbies. For those feeling inspired themselves, colouring books on the tables encouraged moments of quiet reflection.
“The art exhibition was a really good talking point, and it was interesting watching the reaction to the colouring books,” Genevieve says. “There were tables where everyone was getting right into it and others where they weren’t as popular. But of course that reflects how everyone is different.
“My hope is that everyone who was there took stock of their own wellbeing in some way, whether they are the sort of person who likes mountain biking, photography or just sitting down with a book. Whatever it is, the message is that we can actually be better practitioners for taking that time for our wellbeing and that it doesn’t make anyone ‘less than’.”
Doing things differently
For many professions these days, it’s not just one issue but a complex mix of factors that contribute to our rising stress levels. With smartphones demanding constant attention, problematic office cultures, the challenging nature of work and increasing societal pressures all playing a part, boosting wellbeing can feel like an insurmountable task. But Genevieve believes ongoing conversations are a good place to start.
“Wellbeing can’t just be something we look at every now and then,” she says. “We can only change the culture through talking about it regularly and taking everyday actions. It’s about supporting practitioners to know that taking time for their wellbeing won’t mean they are viewed in a detrimental way. And that comes from understanding that these situations are not fixed in time."
“It’s also basic things within the work day and work week, like making sure we spend time away from the computer, taking a walk outside, putting an out-of-office message on and not feeling bad about it. These are the sorts of things that will have incremental improvements on our mental acuity, our productivity and also our general physical wellbeing.”
And for wellness to become part of the workplace fabric, it has to take place across all levels in the legal sector and beyond.
“These are conversations that I think need to happen at universities, after graduating and when they’re stepping up to become partners. It needs to happen in a regulatory sense at law society level, and relevant organisations and representative bodies should be making sure that this is part of regular dialogue with their Members. It’s also about working in partnership with organisations like MAS.”
Thankfully, Genevieve says mindsets are starting to shift, particularly among the older generation who still want to be able to enjoy a healthy and active retirement after leaving the firm. And for younger practitioners, it’s often about giving a gentle reminder of what’s important.
“I see pockets of younger people falling into that culture of long hours. And whenever I see it, I reach out and ask how they are doing. For the younger people I mentor, my message is that you mustn't give up the things that give you that energy and passion. They are a critical part of who you are, and they will make you a better lawyer.”