Speaker's Corner: Firms should foster the athlete in every lawyer through mental-health support

Before getting my law degree, I played professional hockey.
But a knee injury encouraged me to transition from being a “clubhouse lawyer” to a real one. I have since learned that there are many common elements when it comes to practising law and being an athlete.
Chief among them is that both involve a strong culture of performance. In fact, performance is everything. But why do some athletes and lawyers maintain peak performance over the long haul while others drift off in despair?

Great athletes have mental toughness or resiliency, two terms not often used in the legal and business worlds. Good athletes bounce back quickly and don’t wallow in depression.

This is not to say that some athletes don’t fall into the depths of depression, but they remain in the minority of that field. However, lawyers as a group have a larger critical mass suffering from depression.

A Johns Hopkins University study of 104 occupational groups found that lawyers were the most likely to suffer from depression at more than three times the average.

One feature of depression is pessimistic thinking. So why aren’t lawyers resilient or mentally tough? Lawyers are trained to see every conceivable problem that might occur, and in this way, pessimism counts as a positive.

Seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what our profession deems as prudent.

Lawyers, like athletes, must learn to understand how their thinking patterns may contribute to performance or symptoms of depression.

Awareness of thinking patterns must also come with positive coping mechanisms and other behavioural techniques to help confront situations of adversity. This is where lessons from athletes can help.

Athletes learn resiliency skills over the years as they move up through the ranks. At the same time, great athletes know that unplanned things happen in competition.

Successful ones may experience disappointment, anger or frustration but aren’t overcome with negative thinking and pessimism.

They know the best response is to focus on the game and not let pessimistic thinking overcome belief in their abilities or shake their confidence.

There is an athlete in every lawyer. The law seems to attract Type A individuals who are overachievers with a tendency towards perfectionism.

Lawyers put in long hours and often have no control over their schedule with little ability to manage and balance life. Cases may take them away from their families with the result that they turn to drugs or alcohol for support.

They must also deal with the pressure of clients and there’s a constant focus on billing and attracting new business. The stakes are high and lawyers see themselves in an adversarial environment. It sounds like sport to me.

Law firms are no different from other organizations in that mental health is an issue that they should be addressing. It doesn’t matter if you work in a big or small firm as the need to develop ways to promote resiliency is vital.

Managing partners and those responsible for lawyers who report to them should take note if they want to ensure high productivity. They are the firm’s coaches and general managers.

Any law firm, organization or department with lawyers needs a support system. Consider what happens with a physical injury. Let’s assume that someone breaks a leg and needs surgery.

Let’s also assume the person’s performance at work was consistent until the accident. The person is disabled for a period of time but then returns to work and gets back to the earlier level of performance.

Things are not so straightforward with a mental-health injury. Performance may decline over an extended period of time and if intervention doesn’t take place early, that period can be longer still.

Finally, the person reaches the point of no longer being able to work. It’s when the person comes back that a return-to-work program is critical but even then, there can be relapse.

Thus, early diagnosis and treatment are vital for a successful recovery and return to work.

The key is to intervene early when a firm first notices something is out of whack. In managing workplace mental health, the first three months are critical to successful treatment and preventing problems from becoming chronic. So what can we do?

• Promote a culture of resiliency where performance and mental health are seen as positively correlated.

• Ensure everyone is having an annual medical checkup.

• Encourage lawyers to recharge themselves physically and mentally through things such as gym memberships, exercise classes, sports, and social functions.

• Your employee assistance program should allow people to seek help voluntarily with the help of a manager or counsellor in order to identify potential areas of trouble. This will also include support and, when needed, help for the person’s family, too.

• Have a mental-health management model that includes pre-diagnosis by recognizing the warning signs and intervention; disability assistance by understanding the person’s experience, staying in touch, managing the absence, and supporting the team; and return to work by preparing the team, reviewing functional assessments and accommodations, and managing communications.

• Conduct regular employee-engagement surveys to see what concerns people have.

• Provide coaching and resiliency training for lawyers.

In the old days, we called the problem burnout but today we know more. Still, a lawyer who must bill is under enormous pressure and often plays hurt.

The answer is to provide a culture of resiliency. In the long run, it pays off as we foster the athlete in every lawyer.

Jean-Marc MacKenzie is a lawyer and senior vice president of organizational health solutions with Morneau Shepell Ltd., a provider of employee assistance and workplace wellness programs.

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