A 360 Approach to Lawyer Wellbeing: The View from Pillsbury

Wellbeing (1)

The impact of the pandemic sharpened BigLaw’s focus on lawyer wellbeing; here a selection of representatives from Pillsbury explain how the firm’s collaborative approach to wellbeing has been refined over many years and positioned it to address the challenges posed in recent times.

Chambers Associate: When did Pillsbury’s Be Well program start and what instigated its introduction?

Jonathan Gill, senior human resources generalist: Pillsbury’s wellbeing program was formally launched in 2010.  At the time, the program was envisioned as being an opportunity for the firm to help its employees develop and support personal health goals.  While personal health goals evolve throughout our lives and the services that we use to support these goals need to keep pace, Pillsbury’s program has consistently adopted a holistic approach to wellbeing.  In 2018, the program was rebranded as “Be Well” to better promote the breadth of the program’s offerings and further engage employees. 

Chambers Associate: How has the approach to wellbeing in the US BigLaw/corporate world shifted since the Be Well program started?

JG: Wellbeing has gained noticeable momentum in recent years and is starting to receive the attention it deserves.  Wellbeing is increasingly becoming a differentiator among employers and an important component of any comprehensive benefits offering. A landmark 2016 joint study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on attorney wellbeing in relation to substance abuse and mental health further propelled wellbeing into the spotlight in US BigLaw, as well as at law schools and with state bar associations. I think wellbeing is no longer looked at as just an additional perk or something that interests only younger generations. Today’s emphasis on wellbeing in the workplace supports all of us bringing our whole, authentic selves to work.

“Wellbeing is increasingly becoming a differentiator among employers and an important component of any comprehensive benefits offering.

Chambers Associate: How have these shifts influenced Pillsbury’s approach to wellbeing, both within the Be Well program and via other initiatives? 

JG: Pillsbury’s wellbeing program has always taken an inclusive and holistic approach and included offerings to attorneys and professional staff alike.  However, in recent years Be Well has focused on broadening its efforts and taken an “all corners of the Firm” cross-selling approach and increasingly partnered with other departments and collaborators to leverage as many opportunities as possible to help get its message out.  Be Well has collaborated with colleagues from a variety of other departments and groups across the firm in recent years, including: Human Resources; Benefits; Talent Development; Recruiting; Diversity & Inclusion; the firm’s Sustainability Committee and more on wellbeing related activities.

Chambers Associate: What elements or factors are covered by the term ‘wellbeing’, and how do your initiatives promote each element?

JG: Our approach to wellbeing includes emotional/mental wellbeing; social wellbeing; physical wellbeing; spiritual wellbeing; intellectual wellbeing; and occupational wellbeing. 

Pillsbury joined the ABA’s Wellbeing Pledge in 2018 as a reflection of its commitment to help improve the mental health and substance use landscape in the legal industry.  In 2019, the firm began an annual observance of May as Mental Health Awareness Month with planned activities organized throughout the month that emphasize ending stigma surrounding mental health and that encourage help-seeking behavior.  As part of our commitment, we’ve expanded the wellbeing program to include information and resources focused on mental health issues. Instructor-led yoga and meditation sessions are also regularly available.

In addition to what’s available through the firm’s traditional medical carrier for mental health services, we now offer free mental health services through Lyra Health for employees and their spouse or partner and their benefit-eligible dependents.  With online tools, research-backed therapeutic methods, and top therapists, coaches, and digital tools, employees and their spouse or partner and dependents tap into an easy-to-use, convenient way to get unstuck and meet with coaches and therapists via live video or can choose in-person care. 

“There are many conditioning factors and underlying traits that make lawyers more prone, in general, to mental health difficulties.”

Each February, Pillsbury’s offices observe Heart Health Month.  Throughout the month, partners and employees bring spirit and energy to this important cause, and education is provided around topics related to cardiovascular disease.  We wear red the first Friday of the month to support awareness of heart disease, and a month-long firmwide step challenge takes place to encourage all to move more and be active. And because research indicates what we know to be true – supporting others and acts of gratitude provide a greater sense of wellbeing and strengthens our hearts.  Be Well coordinates planned service projects, with Pillsbury’s local offices providing opportunities to share our hearts and benefit our local communities.   

Chambers Associate: Mental health is an area that has become increasingly recognized and less taboo to discuss openly in recent years. Are there certain factors that may make lawyers more prone to periods of mental ill-health and, if so, how can these be managed/approached?

Kathleen T. Pearson, chief human resources officer: There are many conditioning factors and underlying traits that make lawyers more prone, in general, to mental health difficulties – including fierce competitiveness, low sociability, drive to perfectionism, and need for certainty in all situations. While these traits can combine to make terrific advocates, over time they can lead to imposter syndrome, burnout, self-medication, and isolation. As an industry, we need to continue the dialogue around mental health and substance use disorders to create an outlet for lawyers to discuss their struggles and break the cycle of stigma and isolation.

Chambers Associate: Pillsbury marks Mental Health Awareness month in May each year. What activities and initiatives do you roll out in this month and how do you try to promote awareness of mental health and wellbeing beyond this period?

JG: 2021 marked the firm’s third annual observance of Mental Health Awareness Month.  This year’s continued remote work circumstances made it easier in some respects to come together across offices while still apart, to connect and participate in a variety of activities.  This year’s events started with an introduction of a new weekly firmwide meditation session that helps attendees approach each week with calm and focus; all are invited to connect online every Monday for the remainder of 2021 with a dedicated instructor, who guides participants through a simple mediation and discusses the science behind its incredible benefits.

“…a virtual mini-workshop on breathwork that focused on the breath as a mind-body link capable of influencing the nervous system anywhere and at any time.”

Be Well welcomed Dr. Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, who addressed a firmwide audience in a keynote on “Hidden Factors of Health.”  Dr. Harding, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, focused her talk on social connections, and how the way we interact with one another in our homes, in our relationships, in our workplaces, and in our communities can impact overall wellbeing. 

This keynote was followed up later in the week with a Connect & Reflect Forum.  Colleagues from across the firm were invited to connect and reflect on working remotely over the last fourteen months.  This forum recognized that navigating the challenges of the last year has been no small task and has provided many shared experiences for the Pillsbury community. Facilitated by Pillsbury’s Wellbeing and Talent Development professionals, this opportunity to connect with colleagues was open to all to share or hear from others about specific challenges, lessons learned, silver linings, new hobbies or interests, and more.

The month’s activities were rounded out with a virtual mini-workshop on breathwork that focused on the breath as a mind-body link capable of influencing the nervous system anywhere and at any time, and a presentation on substance abuse and mental health disorders in the legal profession.  The latter was presented firmwide by former practicing corporate finance attorney and law firm administrator, Lisa Smith, who is also a recovery coach, podcast host, and recognized advocate for wellbeing in the legal profession.  Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar. As part of her presentation Lisa shared her lived experience of mental health and substance abuse, its relation to the profession more broadly, and how we can address these issues individually and together.

It’s important that there is a variety of touch points in the discussion around mental health and emotional wellbeing beyond the observance of Mental Health Awareness Month.  Related topics are featured in Be Well’s monthly wellbeing bulletin, World Mental Health Day each October offers another opportunity to shine a light on the subject, as well as during the onboarding process – in terms of highlighting related benefits, a relevant home mailer is often sent out annually. 

Chambers Associate: When promoting physical health and wellbeing, what have you found to be the most common misconceptions that people have about this area, especially when it comes to what exercise can look like and how physical health interacts with other areas of our lives to promote wellbeing?

JG: The most common misconception is that physical health is found only inside a gym or reflected by a single number.  Improved physical health is accessible to any body and at any age, but it’s a different journey for each individual.  We know that sleep and nutrition are equally as important, and I think the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to exercise is to make it personal – and just move in whatever way is meaningful and accessible to you & your body, whether that means lifting weights, gardening, walking your dog, yoga, or whatever else that is enjoyable. Regardless of what your preferred exercise regimen is, it should be something you look forward to or want to do; exercise can help support better mental health, buffer against stress, be a good source of social support and more!

“The most common misconception is that physical health is found only inside a gym or reflected by a single number.  Improved physical health is accessible to any body and at any age, but it’s a different journey for each individual.

Chambers Associate: What are some of the diversity & inclusion nuances that surround wellbeing and overall health (physical and mental), and what have you found to be the most effective ways to discuss them?

Rosa E. Walker, senior director of diversity & inclusion: An understanding of demographics by those who may not share the same experiences is important when it comes to considering D&I nuances that surround wellbeing.  Effective ways to discuss these include open forums, presentations, relevant content in Be Well’s monthly bulletins and/or outreach efforts by each offices’ Local Diversity & Inclusion Committee – in short anything that can make the source of understanding more personal.  The Shared Experience Forum sessions that were dedicated specifically to Black Lives Matter (BLM) spoke directly to mental health and feeling safe at work.  One participant noted that the most beneficial part for her and others, was seeing the number of allies that were across the firm.

A multicultural program entitled “Crossroads: Culture, Lifestyle, & Heart Disease” – co-sponsored by Be Well and Pillsbury’s Diversity & Inclusion Initiative as part of February’s Heart Health Month activities – is another example of the interplay between diversity & inclusion and wellness. The presentation included information directly pertaining to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) health related issues – it spelled out risk factors for heart disease, and the elevated risks to vulnerable communities, as well as healthy habits and recommendations aimed at mitigating these risks.

“The pandemic required our wellness strategy to pivot and explore new ways and technologies for engagement.

Chambers Associate: How has Covid-19 impacted wellbeing and what programs or initiatives were devised or built upon to address these challenges for lawyers and staff?

JG: The pandemic required our wellness strategy to pivot and explore new ways and technologies for engagement.  Content and offerings increasingly became on-demand and bite-sized, and many of our previously live offerings like meditation and yoga quickly transitioned to virtual platforms in April as offices began working remotely in 2020.

Chambers Associate: Have we learnt anything from the pandemic and ways of remote working that could be beneficial for promoting wellbeing in future?

KP: While it certainly presented many challenges, the pandemic has disrupted the work cycle in many positive ways. Many have learned how to better balance our days, even prioritizing time for ourselves in ways we could not have in the past. Firms have taken a new approach to wellbeing and looked at ways to extend benefits beyond the traditional models. We have learned that we really can work remotely which, in many cases, has given people hours back in their days from not having to commute.

Chambers Associate: One of your initiatives – your Shared Experience Forums – encourages lawyers and staff to communicate and discuss any issues or challenges they may be facing due to the conditions imposed by Covid-19. What have you found to be most beneficial about encouraging people to communicate their experiences during the pandemic? Will you be continuing this initiative beyond the pandemic?

Anna P. Bankey, senior manager of talent development: Particularly during the pandemic, a challenge for our entire Pillsbury community (attorneys and staff) was to stay connected and engaged working remotely.  Everyone adjusted in various ways, time frames, with some having better days and moments than others. Recognizing that our community has different pressure points and stressors, we offered topical online get-togethers to share our experiences and to connect.  Topics included working at home with kids in various age ranges, quarantining solo, BLM and social justice issues and open forums to discuss anything.  To see one another on screen, to see smiles, to listen, to hear what our colleagues were going through – both difficult and good times, was really meaningful.  After 15 months in this “new normal”, one thing we’ve learned is that connection is key to managing our well-being, whether we realized it or not.  Feeling part of a community, feeling heard, being acknowledged, allowing ourselves to be seen, learning from and leaning on each other, feeling less alone, to “let it out!” was incredibly cathartic.  Having Pillsbury leadership and the community acknowledge these challenges and celebrate our resilience is powerful and I believe, has led to our success and Pillsbury’s unique culture.

“Recognizing that our community has different pressure points and stressors, we offered topical online get-togethers to share our experiences and to connect.  Topics included working at home with kids in various age ranges, quarantining solo, BLM and social justice issues and open forums to discuss anything.

Pillsbury continues this forum discussion initiative in various ways.  Our Diversity & Inclusion group has held forums on topics around Black History Month, LGBTQ awareness, Disability Inclusion, and AAPI Allyship. Talent Development and “Be Well” have also continued the sentiment of the shared experience forums with new Connect & Reflect Forums, continuing the conversations of “how are you” check-ins, as the world has started to open up.  Talent Development also offers sessions targeting smaller groups of associates, for example, first year associates – to hold space for this group to connect and share what’s on their minds: addressing concerns, anxiety, excitement - pivoting once again to a “new normal” as offices, businesses, travel open up.  These continued gatherings are small and meaningful ways to get our community ready to reemerge from our homes, knowing we have friends and colleagues on the other side of the screen. 

Chambers Associate: How else do you ensure that communication is used as a tool for support and a means to secure engagement with and awareness of your initiatives?

JG: In addition to its collaborative “all corners of the firm” approach to wellbeing, Be Well is mindful that different modes of communication can click better than others as experienced across different learning styles and different generations. To this extent, Pillsbury’s wellbeing program utilizes various modes of communication and relies on a variety of delivery modes when it comes to programming and other content.  This has included communications in print and via email, as well as an occasional desk drop (pre-pandemic) with some small gift and accompanying message.  Programming, events, and learning opportunities have been presented in-person, virtually (since the pandemic), and on-demand; Be Well now maintains an On-Demand Wellbeing Library, which has a variety of timely content on its intranet page that’s accessible to employees.  Having a local wellbeing champion in each office is also an effective booster!

Be Well’s most popular communication tool since the start of the pandemic has been its regular firmwide bulletin. Beginning in April 2020, our wellbeing bulletin was developed and sent out on a weekly basis, every Wednesday, as a means of ongoing support and as another touch point for engagement – a similar accompanying benefits bulletin was also developed.  Each wellbeing bulletin consisted of a collection of curated tips, tools, and resources to help support a variety of wellbeing interests.  Highlights included one aspect of physical wellness, one aspect of mental health or emotional wellbeing, one aspect of nutrition, and some sort of practical tech news to use – e.g., featured app, podcast, book recommendation, productivity hack, etc.  Beginning in 2021, circulation was scaled back to a monthly cadence, but the bulletin remains popular, and I foresee it being a regular fixture.

“Be Well is mindful that different modes of communication can click better than others as experienced across different learning styles and different generations.”

Chambers Associate: Among the many tips and resources that have been shared via your wellbeing initiatives, which have been the most well-received and engaged with? Why do you think this is?

JG: The confidential Lyra Health offering that was rolled out beginning in January 2020 and provides complimentary virtual or in-person sessions with a therapist or mental health coach to each employee and their spouse/partner and dependents annually has also been very well received.  A good amount of unsolicited feedback has been received regarding its ease of access, quality of care, and impact.

A perennial favorite continues to be Be Well’s Golden Shoe Challenge, a firmwide month-long themed step challenge competition that takes place two-three times per year. 

Chambers Associate: How can information on and the promotion of wellness help to support other diversity and inclusion activities?

RW: Knowledge about health issues that plague diverse communities is important to get others to understand the underlying and historical issues.  Some examples include obesity and the cost and availability of fresh food or what is known as “food deserts,” lack of proper education in communities, diabetes, smoking, as well as access to health care.

Chambers Associate: Many of your wellbeing initiatives are the result of collaboration between different teams and committees at Pillsbury. Can you tell us more about the various contributors to these initiatives? What advice can you give for successful collaboration to communicate an effective message around wellbeing?

AB: As noted in my response to question 11, collaboration with various departments and teams at Pillsbury was essential in making our initiatives come to life.  Leadership from the firm’s Wellbeing Program, Talent Development, Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives, Human Resources and other firm committees came together to brainstorm, share, and implement the shared forum experiences, various training initiatives including bringing in outside consultants and working with them to customize our needs at Pillsbury.  Having a broad group of collaborators with diverse backgrounds, experiences, observations, concerns and ideas is vital to truly understanding the needs of various groups.  Hearing each other and truly listening helped to craft thoughtful discussions and decisions – all in the spirit of learning and providing essential information about wellbeing to our community, especially during the past year. My advice is to be open, listen with an open head and heart, truly know your goals and objectives, and know your audience. 

Chambers Associate: What stands out most about Pillsbury’s wellbeing program to you?  How would you describe its impact at the firm – either personally or more broadly?

Adam Weaver, real estate senior associate: The most unique aspect of Pillsbury’s wellbeing program is that it is not a generic one-sized fits all program, but instead, provides employees with a large number of physical and mental wellbeing options.

If an employee is competitive and feeling cooped up while working from home, they can join any number of firmwide fitness challenges (with the aid of a smart watch or other fitness tracker that the Firm helped subsidize). Alternatively, if an employee is introverted, they can attend a virtual yoga class and escape the everyday stresses of work and life.

Beyond physical fitness, the Firm placed an emphasis on mental health, which has become even more critical during the pandemic and offered meditation classes (for those who want to clear their head on their own) as well as small group events (for those who want to share their experiences and feel connected to others in similar situations).

Everyone’s wellbeing was tested in 2020 and the Firm did a terrific job of making employees’ wellbeing a priority by spending time and financial resources on wellbeing. Beyond the formal wellbeing program, throughout the pandemic, the Firm maintained a constant line of communication between the Executive Team and the employees, which gave everyone a sense of comfort and security in a very uncertain time, which I know did wonders for my personal wellbeing. 

Chambers Associate: What does the future hold in store for Pillsbury’s wellbeing initiatives? What will your key areas of focus be in the year ahead and how do you plan to address them?

JG: Be Well will continue to refine existing offerings going forward to remain relevant and supportive to Pillsbury’s population in a post-pandemic space. I also anticipate more offerings that expand financial literacy (occupational wellbeing), and additional opportunities for developing a sense of connection & belonging (social wellbeing) and a greater sense of meaningfulness & purpose (spiritual wellbeing) on the horizon.


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