Sarah Bulkeley (Simpson Grierson)

Nominee/entrant details

Sarah Bulkeley, Organisational Development & Wellbeing Manager

Employer details

Simpson Grierson

Size: 200-499 staff

Industry: Professional, Scientific and Technical Services

Background on entrant/nominee's employer

Simpson Grierson is an NZ commercial law firm founded in 1887; a partnership comprising of 43 partners, ranked in the top legal firms, and the largest (350+ employees). We have offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The 3 values at the core of our business: Putting people first: we prioritise wellbeing and build healthy relationships based on mutual respect, trust and integrity At our best: we deliver excellent service and best outcomes for our clients by developing and empowering our people Energetic for change: we seek out, embrace and invest in positive change that benefits our people, clients and community.

Executive summary

Mental illness is very much present in our daily lives. It does not discriminate; be it your background, sexual orientation, gender or race. At Simpson Grierson we are mindful of the high rates of mental illness that exists in law. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than other professions. Sarah could see this was a serious, growing issue so she immersed herself in research, professional development, and evidence based best practice guidelines. Sarah used this knowledge and passion to develop our Mental Health plan and Wellbeing Programme to ensure our people had the best support possible.

Authenticity and vulnerability

Law is a profession steeped in tradition; lawyers are either dealing with people’s issues, or scanning and anticipating the next issue to arise. This can create an extremely risk-averse, low-trust environment which can make the pace of change slow. It can also lead to difficulties implementing new initiatives. Sarah was most vulnerable when the Health & Safety at Work Act changes were enforced in April 2015. With 43 owners of the firm who were affected by the PCBU requirements. During this time there was not a lot of support in New Zealand, so Sarah made contacts and conducted research internationally to better understand the risks and solutions needed to develop a set of wellbeing programmes for our people. Sarah’s authenticity comes from empathy, and the fundamental belief that by investing in our people’s wellbeing will have a positive impact not only at work, but at home. There can be a lot of pressure on lawyers to succeed; university exams, graduate recruitment, wanting to make a good impression in their first jobs and ultimately making partnership. Sarah could see the trends rising in anxiety and mental illness. She has two young children and genuinely wants to be part of a movement that creates safe and supportive workplaces; where they won’t have to worry about what people think of them, aren’t anxious, and have resilience and the tools in place to thrive. Each step in our wellbeing programmes are considered and have purpose - they are not a tick box exercise, but are designed to make genuine positive cultural change.

Courage and leadership

Developing wellbeing programmes that satisfies every person, has the right support, is current and has high participation for the largest law firm in New Zealand is easy, right? Wrong – it comes with many challenges! We have a wide demographic of people spanning generations, cities, cultures, and genders, so there is no one size fits all solution. Sarah has shown leadership by developing a 3 year wellbeing and mental health plan that has been divided into six guiding principles to maximise the wellbeing and mental health of our people and develop a thriving culture: 1. Organisational culture 2. Leadership capability 3. Psychological and social protection and support 4. Smarter work design and environment 5. Build resilience 6. Support recovery The plan has initiatives aligned to each of these guiding principles to ensure our outcomes are balanced and there is something for everyone. It is a three year plan because we are on the continual journey of positive cultural change, flexing our approach, and growing our knowledge – this takes time. Sarah has shown courage by fronting up and challenging decisions made by partners and executives. In 2019 Sarah set up a support package for a team dealing with upsetting evidence, something that unfortunately comes with the job of a lawyer. The package includes: • Awareness and education sessions on vicarious trauma (the trauma you can experience through other peoples trauma) • Individual supervision sessions with clinical psychologists • Ongoing wellbeing support through check-ins and follow-up conversations

Engagement and communication

Sarah communicates regularly at a firm wide level through: Monthly Wellbeing Newsletters: Each month our newsletter includes a ‘challenge of the month’. The purpose of the challenge is to create awareness, and encourage healthier lifestyle behaviours. Participating in the challenge on a regular basis throughout the month helps us form new habits. You can participate as individuals, teams or with friends and family. Where possible, our challenge is supported by an event or seminar. Feedback Our wellbeing programmes are designed for our people, so Sarah encourages feedback and ideas on topics and seminars. THRIVE: Wellbeing Champions We now have a group of wellbeing champions at Simpson Grierson who have been trained in mental health awareness. They are supportive colleagues who people can turn to in times of crisis. People can also share any wellbeing ideas or requests with them. Sarah meets with the champions regularly to hear their ideas and champion positive change. Participation Our participation in wellbeing seminars, activities and awareness days are always at a high level, approximately 75-80% of the firm participate in some way or form. Sarah is good at tapping into the competitive nature of lawyers, and can get them digging deep in their pockets for awareness days and fundraising events such as Pink Shirt Day, Mental Health Awareness Week, and Movember. In 2018 Simpson Grierson was one of the highest fundraising companies in New Zealand for STEPtember, raising over $13,000 for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.


The positive impact Sarah has made has been creating awareness of mental health issues, growing knowledge on different wellbeing topics, creating a supportive work environment, but most importantly, destigmatising depressing and anxiety: • Our leaders respond in a more compassionate way, and now understand that performance issues can often stem from mental health issues • Our people are more aware of signs and symptoms of mental illness, and over the past 5 years we’ve seen an increase in people coming forward to check on someone, and a decrease in people needing extended leave. • We’ve had one partner, and one director feel safe enough to share their own struggles with anxiety at a firm wide level • We have a cohort of 28 wellbeing champions who volunteered to be upskilled in mental health awareness and provide support for their colleagues. Many of them feeling safe enough to share their own stories and experiences. Something that we didn’t expect, was a significant increase in self-referrals with EAP (130% in 12 months since launching our awareness campaign). Our account manager called us to ask what we were doing differently, and said the increase showed: • People now recognise their own symptoms, can understand the address issues, and seek help before things become serious and unmanageable for them. • Leaders were confident to spot signs and symptoms early on, and encourage staff to make contact before issues became severe • Leaders and staff knew about the referral process, and how to access assistance • A focus on education and destigmatisation has led to people feeling comfortable reaching out for help It has also meant we have had no critical incidents.


Sarah has demonstrated an inclusive approach and prioritised inclusion by not only aligning our wellbeing and mental health plan to our values, but to 6 guiding principles that support our people across many levels of wellbeing: • Organisational Culture – we have a positive working environment that is built on mutual respect, trust and integrity • Leadership capability – we have well equipped leaders who role model health behaviours, support balance, communicate effectively and provide clear expectations • Psychological and social protection and support – we have a speak up culture where our people are confident to share concerns, questions or ideas, they are supportive of each other’s mental health and wellbeing and respond appropriately when needed • Smarter work design – we reduce stress and support balance by offering a variety of choice of where and when to work, and create opportunities for our people to get involve at decision making level • Build resilience – we have a workplace that feels like a community; we celebrate diversity, foster connections, support balance and provide opportunities to carry out meaningful work • Support recovery – we act with compassion and have good processes in place to support early intervention and recovery Having an inclusive approach is also demonstrated through: • Online yammer groups – find your people • Seeking feedback, share ideas, and opinions (through forums, surveys, and focus groups) • Seeking volunteers (rather than shoulder tapping) • Contact people across the firm that people can turn to should they come across bullying behaviour or harassment • 28 wellbeing champions who upskilled in mental health awareness training • Upskilling our partners and directors mental health, anti-bullying and harassment, LGBTTQIA+ awareness It’s a continual focus, taking an inclusive approach has made people more supportive of each other by sharing stories, checking-in on each other and flagging with the P&C Team when something isn’t quite right. All working towards reducing stigma.

Innovation and creativity

In 2020 we had to quickly adapt the way we worked, communicated and connected. The exciting part of having to adapt so quickly, is how creative we become. During this time the use of email to work accelerated (because people were working from home in blended environments and it was easier to email than call). This meant that key messages were getting lost. Sarah innovated by developing informational videos that were heavy in imagery, focussed on short and succinct messaging, and included uplifting music: • How to practice good hygiene • Looking after and maintaining your wellbeing • Simple tips to beat lockdown fatigue • Returning to the office • THRIVE Wellbeing Champions Launch • Leading in times of crisis These videos were well received and we’ve continued to use this approach post lockdown to promote not only wellbeing initiatives, but other firm-wide events, promotions and comms.

Supporting materials (optional)

Photograph of entrant/nominee (optional)

Link to video (optional)

Referee details

Jo Stevenson, People & Culture Director (Simpson Grierson)

099775368 • [email protected]

Key contact

Sarah Bulkeley, Organisational Development & Wellbeing Manager (Simpson Grierson)

099775487 • [email protected]

3 Months
Since posted
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