The Shadow Pandemic: How Firm Staff Can Show Up for Struggling Employees
Read the full article in the March issue of ALA’s Legal Management magazine.
In the past two years, humans have had a collective moment when it comes to mental health and well-being. No person has been immune to the disruption, fear and insecurity that the COVID-19 pandemic has ignited. We regularly hear about the cost and consequences of isolation and loneliness. The increase during COVID is staggering: A recent study by the Integrated Benefits Institute indicates a 400% increase in anxiety and depression directly related to COVID-19.
As we enter its third year, we are beginning a new phase: the shadow pandemic. This term refers to the period of time when the trauma of COVID-19 gives way to a more “normal” return to life. Collectively, active and unaddressed mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction are projected by some to take more lives than the virus itself. Furthermore, mental health experts are suggesting the peak of the shadow pandemic will not occur until 2024.
It will be particularly difficult on younger employees. A recent McKinsey & Company article, “Addressing the unprecedented behavioral-health challenges facing Generation Z,” highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on younger people. (For reference, Gen Z represents those born between 1997 and 2012.) Among the most troubling statistics in the report is that Gen Z was two to three more times more likely than other generations to report thinking about, planning or attempting suicide in the 12-month period spanning late 2019 to late 2020. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing the serious toll of the pandemic on top of existing challenges.
While clearly Gen Z is not yet a majority of people who are employed or practicing in a law firm, consider the impact on every person who works in a law firm (and your clients) who has a loved one between the ages of 10 and 25.
The shadow pandemic will impact your legal organization if it hasn’t already. So how can you prepare for it?
Jen Marr, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Inspiring Comfort, and her team have been researching the mental health impact of trauma. Their data found organizations have a devastating “empathy to action gap” — 80% of people surveyed self-report that they can see when someone is struggling, yet less than 20% feel equipped to know what to say and do to show care to those in need.
“Most people don’t show care because they don’t know how to show care and fall prey to what we call ‘the Awkward Zone.’ We need to remember that empathy, sympathy, compassion are all emotions,” Marr says. “What we need is intentional action, concrete skills, tools and strategies to show care and comfort to those suffering.”
“A recent study by the Integrated Benefits Institute indicates a 400% increase in anxiety and depression directly related to COVID-19.”
By comfort, Marr doesn’t mean the cozy noun version. She means the verb comfort. Comfort is a resilient verb and is a tangible, teachable skill that people can use to “show up” for those in need.
Incidentally, Showing Up is the title of Marr’s newest book. Backed by 10 years of research, Showing Up teaches people and organizations how to cultivate cultures of human care and connection. She says there are two layers to “the Awkward Zone.” The first is a mindset barrier. It’s activated when people know someone struggling but fail to act. The second layer is the responding barrier. Undoubtably, we will encounter people we know to be struggling, but we may feel unsure about how to respond to them. The good news is behaviors like these can be identified and modified.
I immediately recognized my own experience with these barriers. Marr suggests the way through them is to simply show up — a set of tangible, concrete skills that help people create environments of care and safety in response to our mental health crisis. Showing up is a conscious competence for social connection and human flourishing.
As law firms contemplate how best to inoculate their cultures from the negative consequences of the Great Resignation and proactively respond to the present-day tsunami of mental health challenges, consider the power of teaching your people how to show up and close the empathy to action gap. The world needs lawyers and the professional staff to be at their best so that clients and their extended networks are more positively impacted. When we know how to show up, we can help ourselves and others struggle less, heal faster and activate positive mindsets and behaviors.