How to deal with mental health issues.
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
Guest post by Ivo J. Mensch, ICF certified integral development coach
Can law practice make you crazy?
Perhaps not crazy, but depressed or otherwise mentally miserable when practicing law without proper self-care. Lawyering comes with specific occupational hazards that can lead to ill-health. But by learning smart self-management techniques and forging a culture that supports well-being you can prevent lawyeritis.
The theme of mental health of lawyers has fully moved into the spotlight over the last few years. Unfortunately, that’s not because the profession is such a posterchild for well-being.
Quite the opposite. Increasingly, legal media have started reporting on the prevalence of depression, substance abuse or worse - suicides among lawyers. Just in my own circle, I have heard of four partners taking their own lives within the span of just a year. The last one less than a week of writing this sentence.
I’ve worked with and for lawyers for over a decade and half now. Coaching them, writing about them and picking their brains about what makes them tick (or stop ticking). I learned that the practice of law comes with some specific perils to well-being. Some are familiar, others are less well known and even intrinsic.
The last decade has seen a creeping uptick in burnout and mental health issues among lawyers. Today, in some big law firms I know, this can even be called endemic. It’s not just in Europe, but it seems to be a global phenomenon.
According to the research I’ve done, looking at the UK, the US and The Netherlands, it’s now mostly younger lawyers with less than 10 years of work experience that are at risk. It’s heartbreaking to see talented young people at the beginning of their career have their dreams thwarted because of health issues. Some, due to the severity of the damage done to their physique, never return to their former level of capacity.
A dive into scientific studies shows that lawyers are at a 3.6 higher risk for depression than other professionals. Also, alcoholism, substance abuse, feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation belong to an unhealthy mix of experiences that many lawyers confront during their careers.
The American Bar Association stated in a reaction to a 2016 study conducted among more than 12.000 lawyers that: ‘lawyers are really unhappy.’ Some findings:
- 28% experiences mild or higher levels of depression
- 19% experience anxiety
- 23% experience chronic levels of stress
- 21 to 36% qualify as problematic drinkers
Let this sink in, and bring to mind your colleagues. With the above in mind, are you now seeing the changed behavior of that certain colleague a bit differently? Not in my firm, you may think. But remember, humans are masters at keeping up appearances.
What to do and watch out for? Below some findings that I believe are need-to-know, so you or your firm can work on and prevent these issues.
Stress has always been part of work, but new is that life has morphed into what can be called the DOPA reality – Distraction, Overstimulation, Pressure and Always on. The lines between life and work have blurred, with the help of smart phones. Clients demand their lawyer to be available 24/7. Getting restorative downtime has become harder.
Also, since about a decade, the tech industry has our ape brains figured out. Behavioral psychologists are teaming up with developers and neuromarketeers in Silicon Valley to figure out how to best hijack your attention by tinkering with your dopamine reward system. The goal is to get you addicted to the fun free stuff, so they can mine and sell your data to third parties and get rich.
Good for them, bad for us. Know that a person living in the western world today, is exposed to as much information in a single day as someone living in the 1800’s was in seven or eight years. Ask yourself: is your brain equipped to handle this load? What is the effect of multitasking, constantly switching between streams of information in an environment where constant interruption is the new normal?
We’re poorly equipped, evolutionary speaking, to deal with these weapons of mass distraction - social media being the worst among them. Neuroscience explains how constant over-stimulation creates excess dopamine. Since this neurotransmitter modulates the reward system in your brain, you literally become addicted to over-stimulation.
Do you find yourself compulsively browsing news sites, your Twitter feed, or automatically checking your smartphone every 10 minutes for new messages or incoming likes for your social media posts?
Yes...? You’ve been hacked….
This constant targeting of the reward system in your brain by an army of supercomputers that got you figured out, can cause dopamine insensitivity over time. This means that hyper-normal stimuli are now needed to generate a similar level of felt pleasure.
More importantly, motivation and modulation of focus are regulated by your dopaminergic system. Think how much more stressful it is to do law practice with a decreased capacity for sustained focus. Good luck doing deep work in a state of flow.
What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, your own mind can turn against you. As a lawyer, nobody pays you for your rosy outlook on life. And clients usually don’t call to share good news. No, your job is to be risk averse, think negatively, adversarial, and often in zero-sum fashion - winner takes all.
Evolution has equipped humans with a negativity bias. To up our chances of survival, it simply paid off to be negative – better safe than sorry is a good heuristic. Negativity and pessimism are traits that lawyers are already biased towards upon entering law school research shows.
But know that brain areas used for negative thinking and problem spotting are the same for generating positive thoughts. So, the more you use an existing neural pathway in the brain, the groove gets deeper (so called use-dependency).
As useful as a negative bias is for survival and being a good lawyer, it also means training your brain to become even more biased toward developing a negative outlook on life.
This, in combination with the aforementioned dopamine insensitivity, might steer lawyers faster towards depressive disorders or compensatory strategies such as alcohol and substance abuse. So, find balance, actively seek positive experiences and ways to generate positive emotions. (see point 6 below).
Below the neck
When I coach lawyers, building somatic literacy is almost always part of a program. Due to the cognitive nature of the work, many lawyers come to live in their heads. Everything below the neck is often seen to be nothing more than a brain taxi.
Numbing feelings and repressing emotions may be a smart short-term coping strategy to get you through a stressful day in a hectic office. But in the long run, the numbing can cause one to lose touch with the body and what it tries to tell us - take a break, sleep, eat. If the call for sufficient regeneration isn’t answered, the message can become as follows: ‘screw you for not listening, I’m shutting the system down.’
Many of the lawyer burnouts I encounter, all have at their core an ongoing denial of what’s really happening to oneself. In burnout literature there’s a so-called Crash Type. Seemingly, out of the blue, there’s sudden collapse but a long recovery ahead. That’s what you get from ignoring the wisdom of your body for too long.
Let me help you with that
Another cause of malady hides in many lawyer’s source code – the identity of being a professional helper. It’s a known fact that people in helping professions are more reluctant to seek help for themselves. When problems arise, the strong, can-do helper self-image erodes, invoking shame. Sticking to being bulletproof often causes lawyers to seek help too late, unnecessarily increasing the severity of the issues and impact on their health.
Another issue connected to having a helper identity is becoming overly identified with the client’s issues. The health insurance company I coach for lists empathy burnout, (aka compassion fatigue), as a common cause for lawyer burnout. Learning to set boundaries and say no without guilt is an indispensable tool for maintaining mental health. (See point 8 below).
I hope I’ve not added to any existing depression with my words. There’s good news - we have plenty of actionable biodata and understanding of neuroscience nowadays, making health and well-being a choice.
If you just take away one thing from this piece is Aristotle’s empowering maxim that ‘we are what we repeatedly practice’. Developing the ability for doing deep concentrated work at will is an indispensable part of the skillset for 21st century professionals living in the age of distraction. Good self-regulation and developing healthy habits can be learned. Happiness, emotional agility and state regulation are all teachable skills. Start today.
What can you do?
The reasons behind the lawyer health crisis are myriad and complex. This list of 11 points some tips, hacks and good practices below is incomplete, but a good start. Reach out if you wish more in-depth instruction or further references to the science underlying this list.
1. Managing young lawyers
Since it’s young lawyers most at risk now, a few words about working with generation Y (Gen Z is just about to enter the work force and will require further adaptation of management style).
Research shows Millennials seek and need more feedback and mentorship. Consider giving feedback real-time after every project. A sense of no support often causes increased stress, withdrawal, isolation and anxiety. Check in often.
Seek to forge a culture where making a mistake does not result in shaming. Many law firms have a culture of perfectionism that can lead to extra pressure while learning the trade. Don’t give young people the impression they have to be robots.
2. Give (and take) back control
This is a big one, the underlying cause of many cases of depression. The feeling of having no control over one’s life can lead to what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’, often a forbearer of depression due to loss of agency. Know that it’s not about the work itself. The same job done one one’s own terms and time makes all the difference. Give back control to people, they find meaning and often thrive again.
3. Remove the stigma
Make asking for help as easy as possible. As a firm, discuss mental health issues and the shame surrounding the topic. Have partners who lived through dark times but came back stronger share their stories.
Do not ask people in need of help to go through your own HR-department. Fear of damage to career prospects makes many refrain from seeking help. Organize easy-to-access professional help outside the firm. Ensuring confidentiality is key.
4. Get brain-savvy As a knowledge worker, understanding how your brain works and what it needs to function optimally is worth investing in. A few work-related brain hacks below.
Stop multitasking. This destroys your short-term (or working) memory. Upon starting a new task while leaving the former one unfinished, there’s the so-called ‘attention residue’. Part of your attention remains with the unfinished business. And after a task switch, know that your IQ drops by 10 points on average. So Singletask.
Start reading faster. Our brain can process information faster than it receives it by reading. Faster reading fosters deeper concentration. Memory retention is 30% better when reading from paper than from screen. (sorry trees).
Practice cognitive offloading. Make to-do lists. Before going bed, journal, or write down what you will do the next day. You thereby free your brain from having to remember these to-do’s. Sleep will improve.
Important for lawyers: separate learning vs analysis. Your brain doesn’t handle doing both at the same time very well. There’s different systems for each task. So choose and set times for these different tasks so your brain doesn’t get confused.
Put your smart phone out of sight. Just having it within your field of vision siphons off a lot of attention.
Avoid interruptions. Getting back into flow after an interruption can take up to half an hour for some.
5. In the right career?
Lawyers are naturally risk-averse and prone to security seeking. For many, choosing a career in law was a secure second choice over a more desired but financially uncertain calling (like becoming an artist or musician). I’ve heard this security-driven rationale from lawyers over and over again. This also means a higher chance of winding up in a career where you don’t really belong, this can be highly stressful.
Take to heart Nietschze’s words: ‘he who has a Why, can bear any How.’ So be radically honest with yourself when answering this question – do you have a Why being in law? Law practice can quickly become a dead end without intrinsic motivation. Money is no substitute for meaning and fulfillment. You’ll just be comfortably unhappy.
6. Practice entering positive states The emotional state you’re in right now is a choice. With practice, you can learn to shift states. Your significant others will love you for mastering it.
Bring to mind a person you love or recall a positive life experience, breathe deeply into your chest, feel everything associated with the image and anchor any positive emotion by taking a state-snapshot. Neuroplasticity will ensure instant access to this state after practice.
Use the above practice for daily entries in a gratitude journal. Just a few minutes of writing when starting your day is a powerful way to shift the balance between negative to positive states. Easy and effective.
7. Avoid golden handcuffs
Financial troubles are a big source of stress. Combined with the stress of work this can put you at risk. Don’t get trapped in a lavish lifestyle from which you can’t walk away from. Many lawyers needing a change of pace have to keep going in order to pony up the finances to support their lifestyle. Or, conversely, when health issues arise and income tanks, the resultant financial stress often exacerbates problems. Work towards building a buffer so you can say no and do nothing for at least 6 months if you need to take time off.
8. Beware of compassion fatigue
My Zen teacher taught me that opening yourself up to the suffering of others can only happen safely if you’re ability for equanimity is greater than the suffering you let in. Otherwise it can destroy you.
Learning to dis-identify from negative emotion through mindfulness meditation is a great skill to have. Maintaining healthy boundaries, and the ability to say ‘no’ without guilt, is a must-have skill as a lawyer.
Learn to say ‘whatever’, or in more scientific parlance, develop some empathy suppression. Being overly identified with a client’s problems can lead to empathy burn-out, or compassion fatigue as it’s sometimes called.
A useful distinction is that empathy comes in different forms. Cognitive empathy, necessary for understanding an issue is fine. Emotional empathy, feeling what another feels, is not essential to being a good lawyer.
9. Get tested
There are plenty of tests available, like the Vitality Scan, that gives you insight and actionable data on what habits or areas of your life you need to change to bring balance and make work-life sustainable. Knowing what replenishes your energy and what drains you can help you order your work so that there’s proper balance and replenishment of energy.
Often taken for granted but so important. There is a lucky 3% of the population that is genetically endowed with needing less than the 8 hours. Assume that’s not you.
The negative effects of sleep deprivation are serious: sleep durations consistently shorter than 7 hours in a 24-hour period are associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, learning and memory problems and an overall increase in mortality. Poor sleep can even undo the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise routine some argue.
Deep sleep, especially delta wave sleep, is necessary to flush toxins out of the brain so it can perform optimally the next day.
Limit blue light exposure coming from led screens. Melatonin (the sleep hormone) levels decrease because of this wavelength. No screen time an hour before bed is a good practice. Get some thick blackout curtains if there’s light pollution in your bedroom. Or, when travelling, bring along a good sleep mask.
11. Invest in relationships (and learn role switching)
Perhaps the most important one for your long-term well-being. Really, spend quality time with loved ones. Since you can’t leave your lawyer brain behind at the office, learn to consciously shift into the role of parent, spouse or whatever is not-lawyer. Drop the need to be right all the time. Lawyers score high for the traits of pessimism and cynicism. Relationships often suffer when these traits are brought into their relational life. Leave that professional identity behind and be a normal flawed human being like the rest of us again.
Ivo J. Mensch is a neuro-savvy, ICF certified integral development coach and consultant, servicing clients in London, Amsterdam and Berlin. He specializes in full transformations & vertical development, building leadership presence and closing complexity gaps, alongside developing physical and psychological well-being.