|Happy New Year!
I hope that you are feeling fresh and rejuvenated if you had time off over the holidays (and if you didn’t, please read this whole blog post to see why vacations are important to our well-being.)
I had a good break and am energized to be geeking out on lawyer well-being data. This week, while searching for something else (the best way to find anything, in my experience), I found an article by Alberta researchers studying Alberta lawyers and whether leisure time is an effective coping resource for people in high stress positions. I vaguely remembered participating in this survey and then never seeing the results. For some reason, it looks like the results were not published for several years.
While more than twenty years have passed since the data gathering phase of this project, and technology and a pandemic have changed aspects of our world, these changes likely do not undermine the study’s core findings, that active leisure activities and social leisure activities, as well as taking vacation, are helpful in reducing depression among lawyers.
These researchers chose to study lawyers not because we are more plentiful than rats or because we aren’t as cute so they don’t get attached to us but because we “are renowned for working in highly demanding work settings that are associated with considerable mental strain” and because “numerous studies have documented that as a result of stress, burnout or depression, many lawyers are leaving the profession” as evidenced by cited research studies. We know that work demands have only intensified in the intervening years and that we continue to see high numbers of lawyers exiting the profession every year.
In 2000, questionnaires were mailed out to all Alberta lawyers—some 5921 individuals—and 1827 surveys were returned, which is a pretty decent response rate to a survey. The authors of the article drilled down into the data to identify 933 lawyers who worked in law firms as opposed to other work environments to get a more consistent sample of lawyers who worked in stressful and gruelling practices. They noted that the lawyers in this subset worked, on average, 54 hours per week.
Here are some key findings from this research, which was published in 2009, for consideration as we look at the mechanisms we need to sustain our well-being in the fifth COVID-19 wave.
Passive leisure activities (watching TV or movies, reading, listening to music) were not as beneficial to mental health as expected. The authors suggest that these activities might constitute escapism which has the possibility of developing into apathy and thereby undermining active leisure and contributing to depressive symptoms. As an avowed believer in escapism and being an introvert by nature, I question whether escapism is something to be avoided!
On the other hand, active leisure activities—those involving physical exertion or exercise—and social activities—those involving interaction with other people—were positively associated with good mental health, but the authors expressed concern about whether the study participants have enough free time to engage in these activities (which is an important qualification considering that the average study participant worked a 54-hour week.)
The dichotomy between passive leisure and active and social leisure may be relevant to our pandemic malaise since many fitness and social opportunities were foreclosed by pandemic restrictions. Vacations, also found by this study to be effective for reducing depression, have also been hard to achieve.
Once Omicron ebbs, and with prayers that a new variant of concern does not emerge, we may want to prioritize active and social leisure activities as well as vacations (as opposed to staycations) to stave off depressive symptoms.
I can attest to the fact that vacations have changed over the last twenty years. We didn’t travel with laptops and smartphones so the biggest interference with enjoyment of our downtime was telephone calls from the office, which we attempted to keep to a minimum. You were expected to be somewhat reachable if a crisis arose on your files unless you went off the grid, but you were not expected to be actively engaged in your files.
Many lawyers now find that they are working during their vacations because technology has made this possible. Rather than fitting in a daily telephone call to the office, lawyers can check their emails and respond in real time. Does this change the benefit of vacations in staving off depression?
Another interesting finding in this study of Alberta lawyers is that work hours and work overload were not significantly related to depression, perhaps because lawyers in private practice are prepared to trade long hours and demanding schedules for prestige and pay. However, three job-related factors were linked to psychological strain:
- Work spillover—thoughts about work when not at work, taking a long time to relax after leaving work each day, and having work-related bad dreams—as demanding careers can take a toll on the ability to rest and recuperate at home
- Profit motivation, which creates a 24/7 culture, is a significant predictor of lawyer depression
- Incivility, which may arise from the profit motivation focus, is likewise a significant predictor of lawyer depression.
Researchers posit that it is not the number of hours worked as much as how the lawyer feels about the number of hours worked that is linked with depression.
Job control--controlling how many hours to work and controlling when one works—can be positively related to well-being, but having a degree of job control may not be effective to reduce the negative impact of job demands.
And the most surprising finding? That emotional support from colleagues does not significantly reduce depression. The authors believe that law firm colleagues may suffer from a general malaise which makes them unable to provide support to each other.
During 2021, the second largest issue leading lawyer to seek counselling through Assist (after psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and stress, which 94% of service users identified) was workplace problems. However, due to remote working, there was less interpersonal conflict and more internal conflict, primarily from younger lawyers and articling students who did not believe they were entitled to downtime. These juniors are logging into their firm’s system from early in the morning until late at night, and when they do finally log off, they are anxious that a senior lawyer may send an email expecting a response, and that when they do not respond immediately, they will be considered to be slacking off or not committed to their positions.
While there are horror stories in our profession about abusive and mean senior lawyers, we know that these are the exception and not the rule. It may be that just as junior lawyers cannot judge when it is okay for their workday to end, senior lawyers are not perceiving that junior lawyers are struggling.
I would like to see firm leaders recognize this gap and to engage in a discussion with associates and articling students about expectations around email responses. We all know that there are demanding times on files—leading up to closings or court proceedings—where we are expected to work whatever hours it takes. But this is not sustainable indefinitely, and juniors need cues about when they can safely end their workday to engage in leisure activities that may have a positive impact on their well-being. Each workplace is unique and can set its own parameters, but in the absence of guidance from the employer, juniors may have to consider imposing boundaries, like going offline after twelve hours (or whatever is appropriate.) They may want to consider out of office email responses indicating that they will respond to the email when they are back “in” the following morning at 8 am unless the sender telephones them.
While one could argue that the world is a different place than it was in 2000 when Alberta lawyers were studied, I think the findings are even more important. Juniors in a high stress environment need to be able to unwind during evenings. While they would ideally access leisure activities involving exercise and socializing, this isn’t always possible due to the pandemic, and we know that passive leisure activities, like bingeing on Netflix, are not as helpful for preserving well-being. If we know that the types of activities most likely to reduce risks of depression are not available due to pandemic restrictions, then how can we address the void?
One alternative is encouraging a social aspect to passive activities, like movie viewing parties where participants can communicate through chat rooms and perhaps have a discussion afterwards. And there are many online fitness offerings that friends can do together but apart. Assist is happy to help connect people around these types of activities.
The finding that law firm colleagues may not be able to provide effective support has never been truer due to the pandemic, especially for juniors who have only met colleagues in person on a few occasions. Assist, however, provides peer support volunteers with experience in, and insight into, a range of life and professional situations. Any lawyer, or articling student, who feels that their work colleagues cannot provide support to them can call us—1-877-737-5508.
And any lawyer, junior or senior or anywhere in between, who experiences stress or distress can call Assist. Assist’s vision is to intervene in the stress-distress-crisis cycle as early as possible, as issues are more easily resolved early. This is how we communicate our vision graphically:
If you are concerned about a lawyer who seems to be struggling, please take the time to ask them how they are doing. Showing that you care is a powerful message to individuals who are experiencing mental health challenges. And if that lawyer tells you that they need support, please support them in making a call to us.
We are all alone more than we would like during the pandemic, but we need to come together to support our peers when they are in need. We may be lawyers—but we are also caring humans! I have met the most wonderful, caring people since I joined Assist. I know that, working together, we can help our colleagues get through their dark times.