In February 2016, a groundbreaking study of mental health and substance abuse issues in the legal profession by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford served as a wakeup call for the legal profession that things needed to change. Since then, countless articles, policies, and initiatives have been aimed at promoting attorney well-being. The latest national effort is the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge. Since its launch in September 2018, more than 150 law firms, corporate law departments, law schools, and government agencies have taken the pledge. That number continues to climb.
Despite the growing momentum of the attorney well-being movement, those charged with implementing wellness policies and initiatives often complain that the biggest hurdles they face are the stigma associated with tackling these often personal and sensitive topics and getting buy-in from the rank and file to take advantage of resources and participate in programs once they are given the green light. With that in mind, below are five tips for reducing stigma and generating buy-in for your organization’s well-being initiatives.
1. Make Sure Your Efforts Are Evidence-Based.
One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started focusing my career on the professional development and well-being of lawyers was to make sure everything I did was rooted in neuroscience- and behavioral science. Attorneys like arguments backed by strong evidence, and a growing body of research demonstrates the benefits of embracing well-being and supporting programming around topics like resilience, optimism, emotional intelligence and mindfulness.
For a wealth of resources, studies, articles, and research on these and additional well-being topics, check out the ABA’s Well-Being Toolkit, the Report and Recommendations of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (especially the heavily cited footnotes and appendices), or your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
2. Embrace Scientifically Backed Strategies to Reduce Stigma.
Despite the strides the attorney well-being movement has made, we know stigma around mental health, substance use, and well-being remains a serious impediment. A recent study of law students across the country found 63% believed seeking help for a substance use issue would negatively impact their careers or academic standing. Nearly half thought the same was true if they were to receive help from a mental health professional.
Reducing stigma around these issues is crucial, because no matter how effective a program, policy or initiative might be, if no one participates because they feel like it is taboo, your efforts will not be successful. However, some strategies for reducing stigma have proven to be effective.
Researchers recently analyzed a series of studies aimed at reducing the stigma around mental health issues. The studies involved tens of thousands of research participants from across 14 countries. This meta-study found that contact with someone who has had experience with mental illness does more to impact behavioral attitudes than educational programming contrasting myths with facts around those issues. Unsurprisingly, face-to-face contact was more effective—although video-based contact was still beneficial. One interesting finding was that educational programming was more effective than contact programs among adolescents. This may be because contact-based programs are most effective when the contact is someone more similar to the target audience.
3. Make The Business Case.
The reason why it is important to articulate a strong business case for promoting the well-being of your firm’s attorneys and staff should be pretty obvious. While it is true that it makes sense to invest in well-being simply because it is the right thing to do—and some have argued it is an ethical and professional responsibility imperative—it never hurts to have the dollar signs on your side as well.
The good news is that the link between a healthy workforce and a healthy bottom line is becoming clearer and clearer. Lost productivity due to chronic health problems costs United States businesses over $225 billion per year, according to government statistics. The cost of alcohol use is $249 billion a year, with lost productivity accounting for 72% of that amount (over $179 billion).
Lack of job satisfaction, engagement, and fulfillment coupled with high levels of stress causes burnout, which is associated with lower productivity and higher attrition. Disengaged employees cost employers up to $605 billion per year in lost productivity. Law firms lose more than $9 billion annually in turnover costs, with firms losing up to $400,000 every time an associate walks out the door, according to some estimates. As discussed in greater detail below, demonstrating a strong commitment to well-being will increasingly become an important component of firms’ recruitment and retention efforts.
4. Incorporate Well-Being Into Already-Existing Initiatives.
One way to alleviate budgetary concerns is to incorporate your firm’s well-being efforts into initiatives that already have allocated resources. Many wellness topics have a clear link to objectives related to more established initiatives, such as professional development and diversity and inclusion.
For example, 30% of the population does not drink alcohol for various reasons. They may be in recovery, hold religious beliefs prohibiting alcohol, or have simply made a diet or lifestyle choice. De-emphasizing the expectation of alcohol at events is not just one tenet of the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge—it is also necessary to ensure an inclusive work environment. And we have already discussed the ways in which issues like depression, stress, and burnout undermine productivity.
But even issues that do not, at first, seem directly related to mental health or substance use impact well-being. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s definition of attorney well-being breaks the concept down into six dimensions: emotional, social, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and occupational well-being. When you adopt this holistic approach to wellness, you begin to see the connection between many common professional development topics and well-being.
For instance, being able to communicate clearly and effectively is a critical part of being an attorney. In addition to being important to your career (occupational well-being), strong communication skills can bolster your social and emotional well-being as well. Having strong social connections, in turn, is an important way to bolster resilience. But communication can be a physical-well-being issue as well. Researchers have found that cancer patients with strong communication skills had an easier time implementing coping strategies, lower levels of perceived stress, and higher quality of life.
5. Don’t Get Discouraged.
If you have already begun implementing a well-being initiative and it has not exactly gone as planned—do not lose hope! Although the time for attorney well-being has come, these are big issues that are not going to be fixed overnight.
But the demand is there, particularly from younger attorneys. In The American Lawyer’s 2019 Summer Associate Survey, 46% of summer associates said work-life balance was the single most important factor when considering whether to accept an offer. Over 40% said they were concerned about their mental health. Similarly, in December 2017, the student body presidents of many of the top law schools in the country signed an open letter to their respective institutions calling out the need for a greater emphasis on promoting well-being. Demonstrating a strong commitment to the well-being of your attorneys and staff is not only be the right thing to do and something that will provide a strong return on investment. Increasingly, it is becoming a strategic imperative for recruiting and retaining the best talent.
While no two firms are exactly alike and there are many different ways to promote well-being, adhering to the principles described above may help reduce stigma and generate buy-in for your firm’s well-being programs, policies, and initiatives.
About the Author
Jonathan Beitner is an attorney, certified coach and frequent speaker on attorney professional development and well-being. He is co-creator of the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge, the former president of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program’s Associate Board, and chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Wellness and Mindfulness Committees,