Leading the Way to Attorney Well-Being, 1120 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 10 Pg. 4

PositionVol. 49, 10 [Page 4]

49 Colo.Law. 4

Leading the Way to Attorney Well-Being

Vol. 49, No. 10 [Page 4]

Colorado Lawyer

November, 2020



In my August/September President’s Message, I discussed my Lawyers as Leaders theme for the year and explained how the two pandemics (COVID-19 and racially motivated violence) have intensified the need for lawyers to step up and lead in a variety of ways. In the October issue, I talked about how lawyers can lead by providing pro bono services to individuals and small businesses, particularly minority owned businesses, that are struggling economically

But what about individuals—including lawyers—who are struggling mentally or emotionally? What factors are contributing to those challenges, particularly in 2020? What resources are available for employers and individuals facing them? And who are some of the leading lawyers and other professionals making those resources available

A Bleak Winter Ahead?

Some medical professionals are predicting a bleak winter, in part as a result of the toll COVID-19 is taking on mental health. Even during "good" times, approximately 10 million Americans suffer debilitating psychological symptoms every winter that can interfere with their lives at work and home.[1] Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of clinical depression that results from shorter days, less sunlight, and decreased ability to be outdoors.2

The problem is not only seasonal, of course. According to the World Health Organization, depression afflicts 254 million people globally and is one of the leading causes of disability.3 Indeed, depression and anxiety together cause the global economy to lose SI trillion every year.4

Moreover, it is well established that lawyers tend to be particularly stressed and anxious. Even lawyers who are not among the millions who suffer from clinical depression or anxiety are prone to burnout and often feel a great deal of pressure to be available and responsive 24/7; to meet billable hours requirements, even during an economic downturn; to avoid mistakes in an adversarial and excessively detail-oriented profession; and to anticipate and guard against problems of all kinds.5 Lawyers are sometimes described as "paid worriers," trained to see problems everywhere, even where they don't exist.[6] This outlook can take a toll on our emotional well-being.

According to a frequently cited 2016 study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 28% of lawyers experience symptoms of depression, 19% of lawyers experience anxiety, and 23% experience chronic stress.7 I'm no expert, but I suspect those numbers would be even higher if the study were repeated today.

First, the pressure to be constantly available has only increased, given the perception that we are always close to our computers and couldn’t possibly have other plans. Lawyers have reported experiencing even more evening and weekend demands than they did before the pandemic, and they say they are finding boundaries between work and life even harder to maintain. In July 2020, a survey of 284 employees revealed that 69% were experiencing symptoms of burnout working from home.8

Second, parents of younger children are being stretched and stressed in new ways. They may be gaining valuable family time as employers allow greater work flexibility, but with many support services unavailable, working parents are sacrificing even more sleep than usual to meet their practice demands and additional parenting responsibilities. For many, these new responsibilities include serving as schoolteacher and tech support for their school-aged children.

Third, on top of our work-related stresses, many of us worry about the impact of the economic crisis on ourselves, our family members, and those in our community who have lost jobs, health insurance, and perhaps even a stable home. We also may be concerned that we or someone we know will contract the coronavirus or that someone who has it won’t recover. Many of us, and diverse lawyers and judges in particular, experience stress and anxiety relating to the racial justice issues that came to the fore this summer, as well as the loss of some our nation’s most prominent social justice leaders. And because this is an election year, political divisiveness is a major stressor for many as well.

So combatting depression, stress, and anxiety would seem to be especially challenging in 2020.9 But being outdoors has been helpful to boost well-being and is something many Coloradans have embraced even more than usual this year, because it appears the virus is much less likely to spread outdoors.10 Notwithstanding the wildfires (another potential source of stress in 2020), I frequently work in my backyard. My husband and I have been trying to walk at least once per day in lieu of going to the gym. I have also scheduled several socially distant “walk ‘n’ talks,” my favorite way to hold in-person meetings. I have socialized in person almost exclusively by going for walks with friends. And we have enjoyed a few hikes and outdoor movies as a family as well.

I have felt the boost that walking and being outside as much as possible provides to my mental health. Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature—a single tree, a small patch of flowers, a house plant—can improve mental health.11

Shorter, darker, colder days are coming, however, and with them, for many, will come SAD or the (milder but even more common) winter blues.

Loneliness is the New Smoking

With the added requirement this year of self-isolating by working from home or, for students, attending online school, emotional well-being is an even greater concern than usual.12 Isolation and loneliness have a strong link to emotional health and well-being. 13Isolation can both cause mental health issues, and be a mechanism for coping with them.14 The same is true of substance abuse and overeating.15

Due to the pandemic, some of us face feelings of isolation from living alone or our inability to gather with extended family and friends. Experts even advise foregoing family gatherings for the holidays this winter.16 A 2020 trends report from Ford Motor Company found that loneliness is also becoming a global epidemic and its impact on physical health is comparable to obesity or to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.17 And going online for social interaction may not be the best solution: 43% of millennials and Gen Zers reported that social media often makes them feel lonely.18

Indeed, a recent survey found that more than 60% of Americans are lonely.19 And a recent study suggests that the nation’s emotional pain and suffering could result in as many as 75,000 “deaths of despair” in the United States over the next decade..20

Of course, in less than one year we already have lost far more lives to COVID-19.21 And many others have been afflicted by the virus in ways that may impact their lives for years to come.22 So we need to adhere to physical and social distancing protocols and follow all other public health and safety guidelines.23 Keeping our distance from others is an unusual but important choice we are making for the benefit of our communities’ physical well-being.24 But we also need to recognize this mental health issue and seek to combat loneliness and isolation—as well as the other stresses and pressures that may .

Addressing Emotional Wel1-Being Issues at Work

Even in a work-from-home environment, employers can play a role in addressing these issues, and should be motivated to do so. Employees’ emotional distress can manifest in numerous ways and impact their work and productivity.[25] For example, emotional distress can result in sleep disruption, fatigue, lack of concentration, slowed cognition, forgetfulness, irritability, and self-medication, all of which can in turn result in tardiness, procrastination and distractibility, indecision and project delays, errors and omissions, strained work relationships, missed deadlines, and absenteeism.26 Lost productivity due to chronic health problems costs US businesses over $225 billion per year,27 and the cost of alcohol use is $249 billion per year, with lost productivity accounting for 72% of that amount.28

Moreover, an individual’s experience at work can have a significant impact on their emotional well-being and quality of life.29 Law firm leaders and others in charge of legal organizations should be mindful of this fact and try to address these issues in an intentional way

First, employers should consider communicating frequently and being as transparent as possible with their workforce. “Every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical,” and when leaders “communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy, it helps people adjust to the constantly changing conditions crises bring.”30 Employers should address job security concerns explicitly and provide safe channels for employee feedback.31 Employers can also facilitate and encourage support groups and networks among coworkers.

Second, employers can be intentionally respectful of employees’ nights and weekends when possible, or find other ways (such as offering “mental health days” and encouraging vacations and staycations) to help employees make time for themselves.32

Third, employers can focus on getting to know their employees’ goals, strengths, and talents and taking them into consideration in making work assignments. “If employers can help employees feel valued and align their work with the right roles that suit their personalities and life objectives, that could have a positive impact on their performance, lower risk and attrition,”[33] and increase their well-being—a win-win for both...

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