By Megan Cleghorn
Our bodies and minds are not designed to withstand consistent exposure to high levels of chronic stress. Sustained exposure to stress has profound effects on our physical and mental health, behaviors and interpersonal abilities. These effects, in turn, have many direct and indirect impacts on our legal organization’s health that manifest in terms of increased costs.
Much has been written in the last few years about the rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even suicide among practicing lawyers, all of which are highly correlated with, and largely caused by, chronic stress exposure. The magnitude of lawyers’ distress is impossible to describe without using many unexaggerated superlatives. In fact, the argument for offering lawyers stress-management programming and other solutions to alleviate distress is compelling to anyone with even a mild degree of human empathy. However, setting aside any altruistic considerations, the business case for such programming is equally compelling, and should grab the attention of law firms and other professional legal organizations seeking to maximize their return on their investment in human assets.
We find ourselves at a remarkable time in the practice, due to accelerating rates of globalization, technological advances and innovation. Lawyers are dealing with unprecedented levels of pressure in terms of work volume, pace of response, impending deadlines, client demands, unrelenting urgent matters, billable hour requirements, conflict-laden negotiations and an increasingly competitive business environment. These pressures are magnified for legal professionals routinely exposed to vicarious trauma, including criminal and family law practitioners.
Numerous physical health challenges are triggered by chronic stress exposure, including an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, insomnia, fatigue, compromised immune systems and obesity. Similarly, sustained exposure to stress heightens the incidence of mental health issues such as clinical depression, anxiety and substance abuse. In his article “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy”, Dr. Martin Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania noted:
[L]awyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at John Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers.
What is the impact of these increased rates of physical and mental health challenges on legal employers? The cumulative impacts often manifest in terms of:
- increased absenteeism costs, including
- increased sick leave
- increased disability claims
- return to work protocols
- cost for managing disability cases
- loss of productivity
- work overload on colleagues
- loss of intellectual capital
- increased presenteeism costs, including decreased
- mental acuity and work quality
- increased health care costs
- increased turnover and retention challenges and expenses
- increased recruitment and training costs
- higher proportion of new-in-position workers
- internal communication challenges resulting from higher turnover
- lower employee satisfaction
- challenges to client relations
- increased workplace conflicts
These costs are staggering. In our increasingly competitive marketplace, where revenue is declining as law firms are forced to compete on price, as health care costs are sharply rising and profits are accordingly shrinking, legal employers simply cannot afford to ignore the financial impact of chronic stress exposure on their organizations.
Consider the following BigLaw example. After “summering” at LawFirm, Associate is hired by LawFirm as a first-year attorney at a salary of $150,000 per year with an anticipated year-end bonus of $5,000. LawFirm offers medical benefits and disability insurance coverage to Associate as well as paid sick time. Additionally, LawFirm allocates a percentage of overhead costs to Associate, including costs of recruiting, training and retention. Under a conservative estimate, recruiting and employing Associate during her first year may cost LawFirm as much as $200,000. When will LawFirm realize a return on its investment in Associate? In the current economic climate, as clients are increasingly reluctant to pay for first year lawyer services, it may be Associate’s second year before LawFirm realizes a meaningful return. If Associate is struggling to manage the stressors of practice and leaves within her first two years, LawFirm has not maximized its return. LawFirm has also suffered the added burdens of re-staffing the cases on which Associate was working to ensure proper client service and the accompanying increased pressures on the remaining team members due to the loss of junior associate support.
Alternatively, consider MidLevel, who has been billing more than 2,400 hours per year for three consecutive years, is chronically sleep deprived, has experienced a significant weight gain and is suffering with severe anxiety and rising blood pressure that result in his absence on a medical disability. Not only is LawFirm experiencing the direct financial consequences of his absence, but LawFirm also inevitably lost revenue in the many months leading up to MidLevel’s disability, due to his impaired productivity, compromised mental acuity, and declining work quality. Those financial consequences alone justify a preventative approach to stress-related illness, to say nothing about the impact on health care and disability insurance premiums.
These fact patterns are not particularly unusual. While lawyers may have a unique ability to face challenges and juggle multiple demands, they are not immune to chronic stress effects. Nonetheless, such stress effects are often ignored because our legal culture promotes lawyers’ concealment of the impacts of sustained pressures, as they typically identify as invulnerable problem solvers. Not only have the lawyers often reached crisis before they make a Request For Relief, but the costs to the organization for failure to take a preventive approach are magnified.
Law firms and other professional legal organizations have a vested business interest in providing wellness programs and other stress-mitigation and resilience-building resources to contain the psychological, emotional, and financial costs to each of the stakeholders. Accordingly, a robust organizational wellness infrastructure, and implementation of research and experience-based stress-management programs should be embraced as a central operational priority.
To ultimately succeed in enhancing individual wellness and, in turn, organizational health, lawyers in collaboration with their employers must partner in (1) making a serious commitment to address the impact of stress in our lives; (2) taking responsibility for the choices we make regarding our stress-management; and (3) taking action with the understanding that for both individuals and organizations to flourish, we need to embrace the view that by honoring our own wellness we are thereby ensuring our organization’s.
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