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The risks of e-presenteeism in the legal profession

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Coined in the mid-nineties, the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’, where work pressures have caused employees to be present regardless of illness, injury or other conditions, sometimes at the detriment of their performance, isn’t new. The last few years have seen a drastic change to the working styles of many. Yet not only has the issue of presenteeism persisted, with 87% of those surveyed in CIPD’s report observing it over the last year, and 63% seeing ‘leaveism’ i.e. working outside contracted hours or using holiday entitlement to work (CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work report), remote working styles have morphed it into its digital counterpart, e-presenteeism.

This is particularly evident in the legal sector, with professionals feeling the pressure to ‘always be available and present’. Known for its fast paced environment with tight deadlines and demanding business and client requirements, it’s no surprise that a survey conducted by YouGov, across more than 100 UK lawyers, found that “nine in 10 lawyers have experienced stress or burnout at work – with more than a quarter suffering on a daily basis” (The Law Society Gazette: One in four lawyers suffer daily stress). Mental health and wellbeing have become one of the biggest challenges for the profession, with “almost two thirds of lawyers [feeling] their job has had a negative impact on their mental and physical heath, [as well as] less than 25% feeling supported by their firm when they are stressed or burnt out” (The Law Society Gazette: One in four lawyers suffer daily stress).

Below, we look at how remote working has exacerbated an already existing culture of presenteeism within the legal profession, and what businesses can do to build a better, more sustainable working culture both in and out of the home.

Remote challenges

Hybrid working is the new reality for a lot of firms and has been a game changer for implementing autonomy and flexibility. Parents are more likely able to make the school run, and those who once faced the challenges of commuting five days a week, now only have to contend with it minimally. Yet, recent findings aren’t all positive. Despite the new freedom, over half of UK employees (53%) have done their job in the last three months despite not feeling well, up from 46% in 2022 (CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work views of employees).

Stemming from a culture of presenteeism, legal professionals working remotely now feel additional pressure to be online even beyond work hours. Studies show those who work from home work a significantly longer day: “data from NordLayer shows workers in UK, Austria, Canada and the US logged on to their computer for more than two hours a day more than pre-pandemic”(Guardian: Home workers putting in more hours since Covid). A further study by Bloomberg found that workers across the UK and US were typically logged on for 11 hours a day – up from nine hours in the UK and eight in the US before lockdowns began in March 2020 (Bloomberg: Remote working’s longer hours are new normal for many). Remote working has blurred the boundaries between work and home, leading to skipped lunches, later finishes and sometimes even reduced quality of work.

The billable hour

Already contested in the sphere by those looking to tackle burnout, e-presenteeism and the billable hour are a perfect storm in the legal profession. “The advent of increased technology and innovations such as cloud-based systems haven’t created the flexibility and agility many hoped for, but simply created more ways to work and be contacted”(New Law journal: E-presenteeism: are we taking a step backwards?), and this is particularly evident in a profession where people work a chargeable hour. With constant billing pressure and an obligation of being digitally available at all hours, legal professionals are at particular risk of e-presenteeism, sparking a renewed urgency in reviewing the billable hour structure.

The fix

In an effort to combat fatigue and burnout, 2022 saw more than 60 companies across the UK trial a four day work week – the experiment ran for six months. On its conclusion, more than 90% of participating businesses opted to continue with the four day week, with 18 adopting it permanently. To add to that, business revenue stayed broadly the same but with a 65% reduction in the number of sick days and 71% of employees reporting lower levels of burnout (World economic forum: 2023 Four day work week trial results). Whilst completely overhauling the working week may be too big a change for some businesses, there are other ways of combatting the burnout that comes from e-presenteeism.

Law firms, and in-house departments in particular, need to build a culture of trust. Understanding that the goal is productivity, not attendance, is the key to unlocking sustainable work styles across an organisation. When professionals can trust that their performance will be judged by targets reached as opposed to how late they appear online, healthier habits will start to emerge.

Similarly, managers need to be diligent in ensuring realistic targets are set in an achievable timescale, avoiding professionals feeling pressured to work unhealthy hours to meet deadlines. This is where training and support for line managers is particularly beneficial. The CIPD report that a, “lack of line manager skills and confidence is the most common challenge for employee wellbeing, and ‘management style’ remains among the top causes of stress related absence” (CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work report). Managers can play a huge role in dismantling a culture of e-presenteeism. When equipped with the tools and awareness needed, they can foster an environment where employees feel trusted and empowered. Moreover, once firms stop celebrating the ‘always on’ attitude, or praising workers for overtime, the incentive diminishes.

Though training managers is a long term fix, there are resources available to aid this in the short term. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) for example, can be introduced with minimal setup. The CIPD go on to report the rise of EAPs for all or some employees, with 75% of businesses surveyed using them (CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work report). These resources allow access to impartial advice for employees at all hours, and cover everything from work, home and health. They can be particularly powerful tools to help businesses build a culture of trust and positive wellbeing, where employees feel their health is being valued and supported in the right way.

Firms looking to develop and retain talent need to treat e-presenteeism as a top priority. It’s time to end the culture that saw professionals sitting at their desks simply because leads and / or managers were still in the office. Instead, management need to look at what people contribute to the organisation, and whether they are meeting specific goals and targets, as opposed to reviewing hours spent on a laptop.

For advice and insights on how to attract and retain top talent or grow your business, contact a specialist IDEX consultant today.


Bloomberg: Remote working’s longer hours are new normal for many

CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work report

CIPD: 2023 Health and wellbeing at work views of employees

Guardian: Home workers putting in more hours since Covid

The Law Society Gazette: One in four lawyers suffer daily stress

New Law journal: E-presenteeism: are we taking a step backwards?

Omnipresent: 2022 Digital presenteeism: a guide for employers

World economic forum: 2023 Four day work week trial results