8 Strategies to Promote Mental Health and Well-Being at Your Firm
Read the full article in the February issue of Legal Management magazine.
The cost is enormous. Attorneys struggle with depression, stress and anxiety at high rates. The legal profession is in the top 10 for divorce and suicide, and one in four attorneys are problem drinkers. Work overcommitments, work-family conflict and permissiveness toward alcohol in the workplace aggravate these problems. Attorneys often feel a responsibility to be perfect and ignore personal and client emotional responses.
Diverse attorneys are afflicted by these stresses even more. For example, one in four women have considered leaving the legal profession due to mental health. Furthermore, diverse team members already report pressure to overperform and overcome negative bias. This pressure only exacerbates the stress already associated with the profession.
We must wear many hats while running or working for a profit-driven business. That means paying attention to expenses, costs and the bottom line. Clients use sophisticated software to micro-analyze and challenge every line on a bill, creating more work as we now find ourselves justifying every task we perform. The practice of law is hard and complex. That is not likely to change.
As profit margins shrink, many firms will increase pressure to produce. The obligation to our clients and the complexity of all that we deal with remain. Those are, frankly, outside of our control in large part. However, there are things we as administrators can do to encourage healthier firm cultures.
1. Respect work-life boundaries.
With the increase of hybrid work opportunities, attorneys struggle to separate work and home life. There is a real or imagined expectation that the associate is always working or available. That pace is not sustainable. Encourage your associates to value their time and personal well-being.
2. Pay attention to the warning signs and respond appropriately.
Mental health challenges are as unique as the individual manifesting them. Pay attention to the warning signs. Is someone missing deadlines? Talk to them to find out why. Have you noticed an associate losing their temper or appearing distressed? Reach out to them. Are you aware of personal challenges such as a divorce, family illness or loss? Make the time to call or stop by their office to check on them.
If you are unsure how to reach out, you have resources available. If your firm has an employee assistance program (EAP), you can call and get strategies for your conversation. Explain the situation you are facing and ask them to help you strategize your meeting. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers Mental Health First Aid, which provides you with key strategies to assess for warning signs, address the individual, listen without judgment and encourage them to seek appropriate professional and personal help.
3. Make sure your legal staff knows the resources available to them.
If you have an EAP, publicize it throughout the year. If you become aware of someone facing mental health challenges, proactively remind your employees (staff and attorneys) that they can take advantage of it confidentially.
4. Provide training and reminders about personal wellness.
The Gallup Organization identified five components that contribute to a person’s well-being: physical health, career engagement, financial security, social networks and community connection. Set a regular schedule of training — for example, Continuing Legal Education or “lunch and learns” — that provides helpful and practical strategies for personal wellness improvement.
5. Practice what you preach.
It’s critical that the partners of the firm model these same principles. That means you must respect the work-life balance of your associates and staff. Too often, senior attorneys forget the power their emails or calls hold over a more junior associate. Manage the expectation in advance. If your partners are catching up on emails over the weekend or late at night, make it clear they should not expect a reply within 5 minutes to their midnight email.
6. Do not assume that you have walked the same path.
Just because you had a light case of COVID and could work through your quarantine, remember that not everyone will be so lucky. Do not glamorize the insanity of working from your hospital bed. Set personal boundaries for your mental health and permit your team to do the same.
7. Hold your team accountable, but help them succeed.
Ask what kept them from meeting the deadline or the billable target. Identify the root cause and eliminate the obstacles. Sometimes it is simply a habit that needs to be replaced, such as waiting to enter your time or a misunderstood instruction. At other times, it may be a window into a bigger issue in the employee’s world that may require additional resources. You can only help them identify the right strategies or resources to overcome obstacles if you ask about them.
8. Normalize asking for help.
There is a significant stigma attached to mental illness. Attorneys fear being treated differently after asking for mental health help. This reluctance is compounded by a distrust of the confidentiality of their problems. There is a concern that their reputations and credibility will be irreparably damaged if they admit to needing help from a mental health professional. In fact, the International Bar Association found that 41% of attorneys would not discuss their well-being concerns with their employer for fear it may negatively impact their careers.
By normalizing the option of seeking help, we can begin to remove the stigma attached to mental illness. Mental illness is not a sign of moral weakness. It is an illness just like diabetes, high blood pressure or arthritis. We must encourage our attorneys and staff to feel free to seek help without fear of ostracism or adverse impact.
AN ENGAGED, PRODUCTIVE FIRM
When an attorney is suffering from mental distress, there is an unavoidable effect on colleagues, families and friends. Whether it is the staff member dealing with an irritable or possibly abusive attorney or the colleague having to jump in to avoid a missed deadline, there is a ripple effect that impacts the morale and efficiency of everyone on the team. Even more telling, the global survey by the International Bar Association reported that 26% of attorneys dealing with mental issues acknowledged they had made a significant mistake, and another 24% reported narrowly missing a significant one. No firm wants the liability this aftereffect creates.
Paying attention to employees’ well-being impacts retention, too: The aforementioned survey also notes that 31% of attorneys surveyed were actively seeking another job. With recruiting and retention top of mind for most firms today due to the Great Resignation, promoting emotional well-being demonstrates that the firm values employees and cares about their long-term success. You’ll have employees who are more engaged, productive, and creative and generally provide more optimal performance. It’s a win-win.