Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Lawyers' Families, Workaholism and Well-Being

Lawyers’ Families, Workaholism and Well-Being

We talked about perfectionism in this blog a few weeks ago, and I mentioned that I brought perfectionism to my role as a lawyer’s wife, as well as being a lawyer, having managed to give birth to three children outside of work hours. Two were very quick deliveries—I can’t really take credit for that as it was just biology—and there was a downside: both quick babies ended up in the Special Care Nursery because their respirations were a bit off. Evidently, quick deliveries are great for moms and lawyer partners, but not quite so good for infants because contractions help clear fluid out of their lungs.
But this is an apt analogy for lawyer’s families: the lawyer works long hours and everyone else manages themselves around them, and this isn’t always to the family members’ benefit.
When my children were young, I had two friends who were divorced moms. They used to joke that I was more single than the single moms because at least their exes took their kids for some evenings and weekends (one was even a 50:50 split) whereas I was usually alone, day in and day out, and for many days and weeks at a time as my ex-husband worked long hours and travelled internationally.
Being a lawyer’s spouse is not easy. You can plan a family event, or a camping trip, or a birthday party, and your spouse may or may not show up. You have to juggle doing everything yourself with the possibility of ceding participation to your spouse when they can appear, and sometimes you wonder if your life would be easier if you had no expectation that they would arrive at home on time and not totally preoccupied with work (and texts and emails and phone calls.)
This is one of the reasons that Assist’s professional counselling services are not limited only to lawyers (and students) but also to spouses and family members. Stress is shared among family members, so the issues associated with the demands of practicing law are felt by family members, and family members’ stress—whatever the cause—can impact the lawyer’s concentration, focus and well-being. A family is truly a symbiotic structure.
Many lawyers have workaholism tendencies, if not full-blown workaholism. Our profession rewards lawyers who put work ahead of (almost) everything else in their lives. Making sacrifices for your client, your file, or your firm is a badge of honour that we wear proudly. I think that this is tied in with the traditional lawyer greeting, “are you busy?”, which reinforces the idea that having more work than you can do is the ideal, and that the ideal lawyer soldiers through overwork and under-sleep, mindlessly believing that a sleep deprived lawyer can still do as good a job as a rested lawyer.
There is now research that puts the all-nighter clearly in the legal myth category —around 19 hours without sleep, we suffer impaired cognition at the same rate as someone with a blood alcohol reading of 0.05, our current legal standard for impaired driving. And our level of impairment continues to increase with each additional hour awake.

I remember taking my two-year old grocery shopping one day and running into a neighbour. My two-year old told my neighbour that his daddy went to work yesterday and had to stay at work all night. The neighbour was also married to a lawyer so we all just laughed. But in many other professions, we would have been chalked up as yet another couple where one partner is “working” all night, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
As lawyers, we make a decision at some level about what we are willing to do to advance our careers, but our families do not fully participate in these decisions, especially when lawyers feel that they are without control over their work schedules and need to be available 24/7. Spouses may buy in to the model, but no one asks the kids.
According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, the impact of workaholism on family members can be as devastating, and even more so, as on the workaholic.
Law embraces workaholics. I would go even further and say that some law cultures manufacture workaholism through the suggestion, implicit or explicit, that practicing law means that work comes first, and that putting as many hours as possible into your career is the pathway to success. We wear our long hours with pride, and lawyers who express an unwillingness to work long hours may be seen as less committed or not being team players.
When I was a law firm associate (yes, it was a long time ago), one senior partner would say that he could tell who was working hard enough by walking around at 8 pm to see who was still there. This made my blood boil. I was in by 7:15 a.m. every day—I took pride on being the first one in the office even if I had to make the coffee. I usually headed home around 6 pm on a normal day. I could manage my workload and reach my billing targets—and of course there were crunch periods when I stayed much later. But my firm had a lot of lawyers who came in later, took long lunches, and went to the gym at 5 pm. At 8 pm, they were still playing catch up. I felt penalized for having an efficient and early work style. This was the problem with face time as a metric, although billable hours and effective rates have their own challenges.
I saw an ad in a recent issue of a Canadian legal publication in which an employer-side employment and labour law firm advertised that their 24-hour call line is staffed by a lawyer at all times because workplace issues never sleep.  Having practiced in this area, I remember a few urgent situations—someone carried the harassment reporting phone at all times, and workplace fatalities and serious incidents sometimes need a quick response. These situations can be handled as part of an organization’s emergency response plan, including the cell phone number of the primary legal contact, but this firm seems to believe that and then deleting offering all clients and prospective clients access to a lawyer 24/7 appears to be a good business strategy. We can only hope that this initiative will be implemented in a manner that ensures that lawyers have adequate sleep and downtime. Imagine the irony of being the lawyer called in to advise on a workplace accident caused by worker fatigue when you are being called out in the middle of the night. Pot, meet kettle.
Being responsible for a 24/7 client call-in line does not necessarily create workaholism, but the erosion of the line between work time and home time can create family issues. And workaholism can hide behind the 24/7 client expectation.
How does workaholism impact spouses and families? Author and psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson states:

Living with a workaholic can be maddening because they have so little support from the mental health system. They feel alone as a partner and parent, expected to handle everything on the home front. The message from the workaholic effectively is: Put me at the centre of your life and plan the household and the family and social life around my work schedule.

Does this profile of a workaholic ring any bells:
[they] are generally minimizers in their couple relationships, emotionally detached and withdrawn. Lauded at work for their super-achieving prowess, at home they are told to cut such effort back by people who don’t seem to understand how difficult that is. A pursuer-distancer dynamic can dominate the spousal relationship, the workaholic wanting distance and the partner wanting closeness.

Some workaholics conceal how much they are working from their families—and we know that deceit is toxic to relationships.
A lawyer friend once confided that she was struggling with workaholism. She told me that she would call her partner to say that she was just about finished at work and would be heading home, and then open a new file and stay for another hour or two. It sounds illogical, but workaholism, like other addictions, is not governed by logic. She told her partner what she thought he wanted to hear and then embarked on another work project, what she felt compelled to do. Her partner convinced her to get counselling, and she learned strategies to deal with workaholism urges and, the last I heard, their relationship was healthy.
But not all workaholism stories have happy outcomes. According to psychotherapist Robinson, workaholism can lead to a higher divorce rate. When one partner is a workaholic, a couple is more likely to divorce than couples without a workaholic partner.
Assist is here to help lawyers who are workaholics or who are concerned that work commitments may be affecting their family relationships. Professional counselling is available, as is peer support. Assist offers marriage and relationship counselling as well as family counselling. Please call us to learn more.
But we are also here for your spouse/partner and other family members. Our professional psychologist services are available to your spouse and dependent children, using the typical insurance definition for dependency which includes children in post-secondary school under the age of 25. Your family members can call our psychological services office independently at 1-877-498-6898—and as this contact is confidential, the fact that they have called and accessed services is not disclosed to you. If you are concerned that a family member is angry or resentful about your work commitments, please ensure that they know that they can contact us directly, including our 24/7 crisis line.
We would be happy to send you fridge magnets, brochures or even our signature Blue Buddy phone holders to raise visibility about our programs in your home--just email us. And remember that Assist’s services can be used proactively, so if you become concerned that the hours you work or your work commitments are causing friction at home, please know that you can access free and confidential counselling through Assist. You don’t have to wait until crisis is brewing. Issues are more easily resolved the earlier you start addressing them, taking up less of your time and energy. And you can see our counsellors for a relationship check-up, just like you see your dentist or doctor.
We are here for you, and for your family.
Please let us help.