How to integrate well-being throughout your organization
It’s been well-documented that lawyers are more likely to experience substance abuse, mental health distress and unsustainable levels of stress than other professionals. Since the landmark 2016 study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation about attorney substance abuse and mental health concerns and the subsequent 2017 report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, attorney health has been an increasingly hot topic—particularly during the pandemic. Almost every lawyer has either attended a CLE course, received an email message or read an article about the challenges attorneys face when it comes to taking care of themselves.
So if lawyers know the challenges to well-being, and they have been presented with ideas and strategies to improve wellness within their organizations, what stands in the way of creating systemic change?
One of the key roadblocks to creating lasting, meaningful change is a lack of support from leadership. The success or demise of well-being initiatives and cultural change is directly correlated to the tone at the top and the support—or lack thereof—of management.
A legal organization can bring in the best speakers, distribute top-end well-being swag—think yoga mats, stress balls, water bottles, healthy snacks and more—and reward coveted prizes in competitions (such as most steps taken or miles run). But if firm leaders aren’t supportive or undermine those efforts through their words or actions, momentum wanes, and the status quo prevails.
Beyond lip service
Even more than the speakers, swag and rewards, lawyers need to know that their legal organizations and leadership actively want them to take care of their mental and physical health.
When lawyers struggling with substance abuse or a mental health challenge finally build up the courage to talk to someone in leadership, it’s critical that they feel confident they have an ally who will be on their side supporting them and encouraging them to seek help.
For too many legal organizations, the focus on well-being ends with superficial acts: the CLE speakers, the swag and the newsletters with tips and tricks to optimize well-being. Those initiatives may seem impactful in the short term, but they won’t lead to real, lasting change if there isn’t an acknowledgment from the top that workplace stressors, high expectations and the stiff-upper-lip mentality of the industry can lead to declines in lawyer satisfaction, engagement, physical health and mental and emotional well-being.
Leadership must recognize how the culture, expectations and code of conduct—both spoken and unspoken—contradict messages underscoring the importance of lawyer well-being. In too many organizations, leaders say they value attorney mental and emotional health and wellness, but then they push attorneys on their teams beyond their limits and disregard best practices such as those shared in the ABA Well-Being Pledge.
How can leadership set a tone about lawyer well-being that genuinely creates a positive ripple effect through the organization?
- Leaders should ask their lawyers and legal professionals how they are doing. By reaching out, they are demonstrating that they care about the members of their organization rather than ignoring or sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to indicators of stress, health risks and diminished well-being.
- Managers should be open to hearing and understanding the challenges lawyers are facing within their firm or organization. Many leaders make excuses when they hear about the mental, emotional and physical struggles of their employees rather than asking, “What could we do to change this?” and doing the hard work of taking organizational responsibility.
- Incentivizing and praising overwork and/or stigmatizing self-care can inflict damage that can’t be offset by lip service. Leaders need to support their teams when they need to take time for mental, emotional and physical health. They can champion systemic and organizational change by reviewing practices and policies, working with others to assess benefits related to health and wellness, reflecting on key indicators of strife such as attrition and usage of employee-assistance programs, and publicly collaborating with others across the organization to motivate and acknowledge well-being efforts.
- Leaders must remember that they are role models. Others look to them for guidance and an indication of the institutional value put on lawyer wellness. When lawyers see their leaders devaluing well-being initiatives, making unreasonable demands of others and demonstrating poor habits themselves, the culture of the organization will not improve.
- Firm leaders must build cultures where lawyers feel valued as human beings whose mental, emotional and physical health needs must be met to be at their best personally and professionally. While law is a business, lawyers are human and should be encouraged and supported to be at their best and thrive in every area of their lives. This will benefit the organization in the long run.
When it comes to well-being, it is essential that the tone at the top of legal organizations is one of support, awareness, active engagement and willingness to make incremental changes that increase the long-term health of the lawyers and legal professionals on the team.
Without a true and demonstrated commitment from leadership, the path to lawyer well-being will be littered with branded yoga mats and water bottles and very little actual change.
This column reflects the opinions of the author, and not the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.
Kendra Brodin, who holds a master’s in social work and a JD, is the founder and CEO of EsquireWell, which provides well-being learning resources as well as speaking, consulting and specialty coaching services. She is a member of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Well-Being Committee.