There’s no question that stress has taken a tremendous toll on lawyers during the pandemic. In many cases the level of work has ramped up, with lawyers trapped in their homes or some other location, tethered to their colleagues and clients 24/7, with little person-to-person interaction. Not only is the workload heavy, but few of the typical places we go for relaxing and resetting have been available—no movie theaters, no live music or sports events, no live lectures or religious gatherings. Even important weddings, christenings and funerals have been put on hold or held with few in attendance. Personal relationships suffer and loneliness has become epidemic. It is no wonder that many lawyers are experiencing record levels of stress and are wondering whether it’s time to leave the law.
And despite a wave of post-pandemic bonuses and salary increases, it’s become quite clear that financial compensation is not sufficient to keep burnout from decimating the ranks.
What can managers do? Recent advice to a firm manager included the following:
Make contact. It is even more important than ever to reach out to those who are working with you. Not to give a new assignment or see how an existing one is going. Just to ask how they are “feeling,” something lawyers don’t often remember to inquire about. You may get an earful of all that is going badly, but just having someone express concern will help them. You don’t have to solve all the problems you hear about, by the way. The point is to show you care.
Don’t forget the power of positivity. Lawyers have a tendency to be negative, even very negative—partly the result of the pessimism that is a career advantage for most lawyers. Unfortunately, while it may help uncover what could go wrong for a client, that negativity can hurt your own ability to be resilient and your ability to mentor the troops during difficult times. Research has established the power of positivity in helping improve both short term and long term performance. Even if there’s no specific accomplishment that you can recognize, compliment the effort that has been made, which is particularly appreciated under these difficult circumstances. That goes for what you say to yourself, as well as to others.
Your tone matters as much as your words. Interestingly enough, research shows that negative messages delivered with warmth are remembered as positive. Similarly, leadership studies have shown that a leader’s warmth is more influential with those he/she is managing than is his/her expertise in the field. Use that tool to your advantage.
Make seeking professional help an option. There has been too much of a stigma in law attached to addressing persistent issues like depression, substance abuse, and anxiety, debilitating conditions that are particularly prevalent among lawyers and even more common now. We are all better off—firms and clients—if those suffering from such conditions feel free to find help in addressing them.