Building Resilience for the Stressful Times Ahead
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Even in perfectly normal years, the last few months seem to be abnormally stressful.  This year, the ongoing pandemic will heighten the stresses your internal clients will experience.  You can help them by communicating that everyone is feeling a bit stressed right now and sharing strategies that your clients can use to help build resilience.

How stressed are we?

Since 2007 the American Psychological Association (APA) has issued an annual report on the “state of the nation,” with a specific focus on stress.  Earlier this year the group decided to take a monthly “pulse” to understand how individuals are processing key events that have occurred.  Thus, far they have issued three separate reports

Among the key findings are the following:

  • Most Americans are experiencing considerable stress related to the coronavirus.  They also report higher levels of general stress than in recent years.
  • On average, American parents feel higher levels of stress than adults without children.  Parental stress relates to education, basic needs, access to health care services and missing major milestones.
  • Following the May 25th death of George Floyd, more than eight in ten Americans reported that the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.  Around seven in ten Americans reported that this is the lowest point in the nation’s history that they can remember.
  • Stress levels related to the pandemic remained generally consistent throughout the spring and summer.  On a scale of one to ten, the levels of stress reported were 5.9 in April/May, 5.6 in May/June and 5.7 in July. 

Among concerns lawyers express in terms of managing work, JD Supra reports 32% worry about managing the current workload during the crisis, 31% worry about a broader slowdown in overall business, and 23% worry about collaboration between and among remote employees.

Should lawyers be particularly aware of the need to manage stress?

Absolutely yes.  Research undertaken by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Foundation in 2016 found, “[l]evels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys … are significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing mild or higher levels depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.”  The research further noted that “61% reported concern with anxiety at some point in their career…”  Additionally, it revealed “higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use.”

For additional information, read “The Prevalence of Substance Abuse and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, February 2016.

Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has postulated that American lawyers may be particularly susceptible to depression, anxiety and stress for three significant reasons:

Pessimism - According to Seligman, the “pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local temporary and changeable.”  He further notes that “pessimists are losers on many fronts.  But there is one glaring exception:  Pessimists do better at law.” 

Low Decision Latitude in High Stress Situations - Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one believes he or she has on the job. Individuals who work in fields in which high demands are placed upon them and they experience low decision latitude, i.e., there is one right and one wrong option, experience higher levels of depression and cardiovascular disease.   

Win-Loss Perspective - Seligman writes, “American law has…migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary goal to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends.”

For additional information, read M. Seligman, “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?” (2016)

What are the signs that someone is stressed?

According to the APA, the coronavirus pandemic “is an epidemiological and psychological crisis.”  Everyone needs to be aware of the signs of anxiety, depression and suicide so that we know when we’re struggling as well as when a colleague, client or family member might be at risk.

The APA cites the following:

Signs of anxiety

  • Persistent worry or feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
  • Excessive worry about a number of concerns, such as health problems or finances, and a general sense that something bad is going to happen.
  • Restlessness and irritability.
  • Difficulty concentrating, sleep problems and generally feeling on edge.

Signs of depression

  • A lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities.
  • Significant weight loss or gain.
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping.
  • Lack of energy or an inability to concentrate.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Risk factors for suicide

  • Talking about dying or harming oneself.
  • Recent loss through death, divorce, separation, even loss of interest in friends, hobbies and activities previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in personality like sadness, withdrawal, irritability or anxiety.
  • Changes in behavior, sleep patterns and eating habits.
  • Erratic behavior, harming self or others.
  • Low self-esteem including feelings of worthlessness, guilt or self-hatred.
  • No hope for the future, believing things will never get better or nothing will change.

What can we do to combat stress?

Long-term, chronic stress can affect physical health. The American Medical Association reports that chronic stress contributes to cardiovascular disease (related to high blood pressure, truncal obesity, and high lipid levels) and diabetes (high glucose levels) and osteoporosis (bone density). It also impacts our ability to think clearly.  Throughout the pandemic, several of my clients have reported difficulty focusing on projects for extended periods of time.  They have found that the best way for them to stay productive is to break the day into 15-minute spurts of focused activity, followed by a brief diversion, and then repeat. 
According to the APA, the most effective strategies for reducing stress include the following:

  • Maintaining a healthy social support network;
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise; and
  • Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.

Senior lawyers and other managers should implement the following additional strategies:

Create structured team and individual check-ins - Senior lawyers shouldn’t make the mistake of seeing this additional management responsibility as yet one more item that keeps them from tackling client emergencies and other billable work.  The team and one-on-one conversations that senior lawyers conduct throughout the upcoming winter months may be the single most important thing that they can do to ensure junior associates develop professionally and feel connected.  Even brief check-ins will help the firm retain its best associates long after the pandemic ends. 

Communicate when it’s best for others to reach you - Junior associates are desperate to communicate with partners and yearn for the serendipitous conversations that used to occur in hallways and dining rooms.  Many are also hesitant to reach out to senior lawyers, because they know most partners are extremely busy tending to client needs.  Senior lawyers should block out some portion of each workday and let juniors know that you will be available to take their calls during that time. 

Offer encouragement and emotional support - Throughout the course of their careers, senior lawyers have withstood several national crises, including the Great Recession of 2008, 9/11, the bursting of the dot com bubble, etc.  When the pandemic emerged, they had the benefit of perspective, something junior lawyers don’t yet possess.  Senior lawyers can help juniors better cope by sharing what they learned from previous crises. 

Many junior lawyers feel terribly isolated, expressing concerns that they are losing professional relationships daily.  Remind them to take initiative and affirmatively reach out to others…make one call a day to a peer in their practice group, a colleague in another department who is in their starting class, a law school classmate at another firm, or one of the firm’s newest associates. 

If senior lawyers fail to initiate conversations, associates must be encouraged to reach out.  As I recently told one junior associate, a good rule of thumb for succeeding at life is:  if you don’t ask, you won’t get.  If you feel the need for a mental health day, you need to ask for it; if you want to work on a specific client project, be prepared to ask to join the team; and if you need 10 minutes of a partner’s time to better understand the parameters of an assignment, send a meeting request immediately.  Juniors should be reminded that they won’t always “get” everything that they request, but they will increase the sense that they’ve taken control of their careers by asking.


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