Attorneys live an extremely busy and stressful lifestyle. Even before COVID-19, attorneys often displayed a high rate of anxiety, depression, stress, and heavy substance abuse. However, since the pandemic took hold in 2020, studies show an increase in mental health challenges for all adults, making attorneys who were already vulnerable to stress and anxiety even more susceptible to mental and physical breakdowns.
In a recent CEB program on competency, Daphne Pierre Bishop, an expert litigator and counselor, gives out tips on how attorneys can minimize the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health, and better focus on self-care to produce an overall healthier and more productive lifestyle.
The impact of COVID-19 on attorneys. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did a survey of more than 5,000 adults in June 2020 and found an overall increase in anxiety, stress, depression, and suicide rates. The study found these increases in mental health challenges were related not only to the risks surrounding the virus itself, but also to the accompanying mitigation efforts – primarily the physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Health care practitioners have also been seeing pandemic fatigue: patients excessively tired despite adequate rest. This phenomenon is being tied to people tiring of our “new normal”: being cooped up, adhering to restrictions, wearing masks, physical distancing, and being away from family and friends.
This impact is found to be even more concentrated in the legal industry. According to a nationwide survey of legal professionals by the American Bar Association, attorneys have expressed job insecurity (especially ethnic/racial minorities and junior lawyers), revision of retirement plans, increased child care obligations, reduced business development, and lack of work-life balance despite remote work.
Caring for attorneys’ well-being during COVID-19. Before we tackle how attorneys can limit the impact of COVID-19 in their lifestyles, it is important to first highlight what “well-being” for attorneys really means. The following definition does a great job of framing components of well-being for attorneys: “A continuous process whereby lawyers seek to thrive in each of the following areas: emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, sense of spirituality and greater purpose in life, physical health, and social connection with others.” (The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.)
It’s also important to note that there is a lot of flexibility within this framework. What improves one attorney’s well-being may not necessarily improve another attorney’s well-being. The key is to find what works for you and your life within this broad framework.
Mental health. One of the key components of attorney well-being is looking after your emotional health. Sometimes that means seeking professional help for your mental well-being when needed. In a hypercompetitive profession like the law, it’s imperative for the legal industry to normalize a culture of self-care and mental health. Attorneys should look to doctors, therapists, and social workers who can help them navigate phases of high stress and emotional disruption.
There are several ways for attorneys to seek mental health assistance, including getting diagnosed and talking to a professional therapist, taking prescribed medication, looking into rehabilitation programs for substance abuse issues, and looking at suicide prevention resources. Other ways attorneys can look for help is to explore any employee assistance programs their employers might offer, or contact the confidential lawyer assistance program sponsored by the State Bar of California, which is designed to help attorneys struggling with mental stress, anxiety and/or substance abuse.
Work satisfaction. Another effective way to control well-being is to cultivate satisfaction in work. This is especially true for attorneys, since their work environment is often highly stressful. Some of the ways attorneys can improve their work satisfaction is to ask their employers for support with health and safety issues, remote work resources, appropriate time off, and a lighter workload to manage a healthy work/life balance.
For attorneys, it’s important to reflect on your day-to-day work and consider small changes to increase your satisfaction level at your current job. For some of us, small changes might not be enough, in which case you should consider bigger changes, like practicing in a different area of law or changing employers. Don’t be afraid to seek career counseling even in later stages of your career. Remember, your physical and mental well-being should always be a consideration in your career path.
Spiritual well-being. One of the core components of well-being is taking care of your spiritual health. This doesn’t necessarily mean religion, although if that’s what it means to you, that’s great. Broadly speaking within this context, spirituality means developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of your life.
There are many ways to do this. One way is through volunteerism, which is especially important in COVID-19 times, when many feel a lack of connection and lack of control and ability to help solve problems. Several studies have shown that volunteering is good for your health. It increases your life satisfaction and improves your overall physical and mental health. It also allows you to interact with others who are also looking to volunteer, and helps foster those social connections.
For attorneys, there are several opportunities to volunteer, especially within the legal field. Consider taking on a pro bono case with a local legal nonprofit agency in your community, or helping them organize community events. You can also check with your employer to see if they have programs you can participate in to do some meaningful pro bono work.
Physical health. As obvious as it may sound, maintaining your physical health is also key in lowering stress levels and anxiety, and living an overall active and healthy lifestyle. Try to get regular physical activity. If the pandemic forced an interruption in your physical activity routine, now is the time to get back on the horse. Most gyms are now re-opening. If you are not comfortable returning to a gym just yet, consider alternative physical activities like yoga or hiking, which don’t require you to be surrounded by large groups of people under the current environment of social distancing. The pandemic has created a virtual community of trainers and workout routines availabe online. Following a good diet and making sure you get enough sleep is also very important. The key is to be creative and constantly feel motivated and inspired to live a healthy lifestyle on a daily basis.
Attorneys are often guilty of checking their emails and work product even late at night while they are in bed. This is really not necessary for most attorneys. It’s also important to remember that you are a better advocate for your client when you are well-rested and fully focused, so remind yourself of that if you find yourself reviewing work documents late at night on a regular basis. Try to avoid any technology before bedtime. That doesn’t mean just work-related items, but also news and social media.
Finally, try not to delay medical screenings, and make sure you are on top of your health. It’s imperative that you listen to your body when making decisions, even during a pandemic. The healthcare industry has now adjusted to the pandemic and created several resources, including virtual appointments, to help you reach out and get the help you need. Take advantage of those resources.
Conclusion. Remember, your competency as an attorney is directly tied to your physical and mental health. Without investing in these areas, you risk not only suffering from poor health, but also suffering as a professional advocate. It’s therefore not just in your own personal interest but is also your professional responsibility to focus on your well-being and find a healthy lifestyle to best cope with stress and anxiety that comes with being an attorney, especially in this high-stress environment of COVID-19.
This article was adapted from Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19: How Attorneys can best cope with Isolation, Anxiety and Fear, a CEB MCLE program recorded on September 8, 2021. This and other CEB MCLE content can be found here.
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