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Legal Employers’ Role in Combatting Mental Health Stigma

Jennifer C. Zampogna, M.D., Director of Operations, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania

Education is a key first step in reducing stigma and preventing and addressing burnout and other mental health issues in the workplace. Firms should offer frequent and diverse CLE programming on topics of wellness, mental health and substance use issues, stress management, and mindfulness. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania offers free educational programs on a myriad of topics to all legal employers, bar associations and other legal entities. In our experience over the last 30 plus years, the reach of our educational programming has been directly proportional to the number of lawyers, law students and judges that reach out to us for supportive services. The more legal professionals we reach via educational programming, the more they are willing to reach out for help.

Education empowers individuals to reach out for support and resources. Our goal, as should be the goal of legal employers, is to ‘normalize the ask.’ Given the fact that at least one in three lawyers will experience a significant mental health or substance use challenge throughout the course of their career, employers have a clear mandate to focus on education, prevention, and compassionate treatment and support for employees facing such issues to foster a healthy work culture that will benefit not only their employees but also their clients.

Besides being the absolute right thing to do, it is also far more profitable for employers to have healthy lawyers representing satisfied clients than having burned out employees who are distracted and exhausted struggling to stay above water. Every firm and workplace has its own culture which is often determined and perpetuated by its leaders. You can offer all the wellness initiatives possible and still have burned out employees if healthy boundaries, prioritization of well-being, and authentic support for such efforts are not modeled strongly and consistently by firm leaders.

Other simple things legal employers can do to promote a healthy and mutually supportive work culture and reduce risk of burnout include:

  • Frequently recognizing and expressing appreciation for the hard work of their employees (This can be an overt, formal gesture as well as a simple “thank you” delivered with sincerity and consistency.);
  • Ensuring that employee input and feedback is valued, supported, protected, and recognized by leadership (It may be best to provide a structure and method for such input that can be easily reproduced.);
  • Having an unmanageable workload is a primary driver for burnout. Legal employers can take proactive measures to critically assess workloads and incorporate employee feedback to determine and rectify what factors may be exacerbating the workload issues (lack of resources, lack of time, lack of clarity of assignment, issues impeding collaboration, etc.);
  • Ensuring there are ample resources to support the work of the employees and their mental health as well as consistent utilization and promotion of such resources by leadership;
  • Providing transparency of decision-making by leaders and checking in with employees frequently; and
  • Exhibiting approachability, authenticity, and sincerity in all interactions with staff.

Taking these steps will reduce burnout, improve outcomes, and foster a sense of community, autonomy, and self-efficacy among employees. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a confidential and safe resource for Pennsylvania attorneys and their family members who may be struggling with their mental health or substance use. Since 1988, LCL has confidentially assisted and supported thousands of individuals who have faced a myriad of challenges (including grief, stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, gambling problems, problematic alcohol or prescription drug use, etc.), helping them navigate through dark and difficult times. If you or someone you know is struggling, please call LCL’s 24/7 confidential hotline, call 1-888-999-1941. You may save a life. There is help, and there is hope.

This article is part of a month-long series exploring lawyer well-being as misconduct prevention. Topics include challenges to mental health, stress and burnout, preventative strategies, employer support, and seeking support through LCL.

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