Health and Well-Being for Lawyers - The Time Is Now!
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”—The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, August 2017).
Practicing law can be hazardous to your health. As discussed in previous columns, the landmark 2016 study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation affirmed that attorneys experience wellness issues at disproportionately higher rates than the general population, including mental health concerns and substance use. In May 2019, the Virginia State Bar President’s Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being sought to answer the question of why attorneys are at increased risk of developing health concerns. The 2019 report identified a number of occupational risks to practicing law, including negative impacts on our physical health and ability to practice:
Sedentary lifestyle. Prolonged sitting is associated with increased mortality rates. In fact, evidence suggests that sitting for eight hours a day is just as bad for your health as obesity or smoking. We are also prone to “computer slouch,” which can cause hunched shoulders, neck issues, and long-term posture problems.
Long hours. The high demands on attorneys from clients, employers, and the court system can leave lawyers prone to chronic stress and exhaustion, which can culminate in burnout.
Sleep deprivation. Attorneys are some of the most sleep-deprived professionals. Too little sleep is associated with elevated risk of illness and physical injury, as well as lapses in judgment that increase your risk of committing malpractice.
Too little time outside. Working indoors for prolonged periods and not getting enough sun exposure can disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythms, lead to vitamin deficiencies, and may also elevate your risk of developing seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Aging. As we age, our physical and mental abilities naturally decline. Given the difficult nature of legal work, we should be especially mindful of how the aging process may reduce our ability to practice effectively and ethically over time.
Forming Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Many of the steps attorneys can take to safeguard their physical and mental well-being are rooted in common sense. In practice, however, we find that lawyers simply don’t make time for themselves to prioritize regular self-care and maintenance. Some even believe that self-care is selfish and take care of everyone else first, putting themselves last.
Below are a few action items that lawyers can use to evaluate their present circumstances and ultimately form healthier habits:
1. Prioritize your physical and mental health. Period. Make a decision to take charge of all aspects of your life today. Consider where you could adopt more productive lifestyle habits. This includes healthy eating, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule. Take a serious look at your work habits. Do you take frequent breaks throughout the day? Do you spend time with family, loved ones, or even yourself without being tethered to a laptop or other electronic device?
Those who work remotely may be especially tempted to “squeeze in” work all day, every day. This has certainly been the case for many during the pandemic. Instead, build in guilt-free time to relax and recharge in the short and long term—take scheduled walks during the workday, take mental health days when you need them, and plan vacations!
2. Seek help and support. Investigate and take advantage of available resources. Arm yourself with knowledge to deepen your understanding of the risk factors and negative effects of the all-too-common health concerns that plague attorneys. A good starting point is to contact the lawyer assistance program in your state, which provides confidential services and support to members of the legal profession. Your employer may also have a free employee assistance program, including access to professional counseling. At the very least, reach out to a trusted friend, colleague, or family member if you are struggling. You are never alone.
3. Implement a mindfulness meditation practice. The authors have embraced mindful lifestyles for many years and firmly believe that incorporating mindfulness into our day-to-day lives is an essential ingredient for healthy living. While there is more than one way to cultivate mindfulness, the most effective means is through a formal meditation practice. Keep in mind that there is no “right” way to meditate. Rather, the myriad available tools and techniques are all vehicles to get you to the same destination.
Experiment with different meditation methods to find what resonates with you. Take advantage of free mindfulness resources, including guided meditation apps such as Insight Timer. You may find that scheduled live meditation with others helps keep you accountable; if so, be sure to join our free Online Meditation Community, where we explore a new technique each month. Ultimately, finding a mindfulness practice that you enjoy and look forward to is the cornerstone of forming a sustainable habit for years to come.
If you are interested in learning additional strategies designed to promote well-being in your everyday life and practice, email us at email@example.com, and we will forward our Mindfulness Resource Guide geared specifically to legal professionals.
4. Join us this month in observing National Wellness Month. Commit to creating a new productive habit or to shifting one that does not serve your best interest. Most of us went off track in some form or another as a result of the pandemic pandemonium. For example, Cindy gave herself permission to eat ice cream every single night. Seriously. Her most recent physical revealed an uptick in LDL cholesterol that she took as a warning sign, so she consciously decreased her ice cream intake. Whether you commit to a new exercise routine (such as taking a walk each day), to a revision in diet, or to establishing a healthy sleep schedule, we recommend that you hold yourself accountable to another person or community. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to get sidetracked.
When was your last annual physical? Routine health screenings should become part of your self-maintenance plan. Even those in their 20s and 30s may have risk factors. A number of resources are readily available online that provide guidance as to the types of testing that should be done on a decade-by-decade basis. If you haven’t had a recent physical, dentist appointment, or eye exam, we urge you to make an appointment right now!
Those suffering from chronic health issues such as migraines or chronic fatigue would be especially well served by a commitment to extreme self-care and adherence to sound health practices. All too often, attorneys feel guilty or “less than” when it is ill-advised or even impossible for them to work long hours. Developing a mindset of self-compassion can help.
Sound Body, Sound Mind
Physical and mental well-being are inextricably linked and provide an essential foundation not only to professional productivity but also to satisfaction and happiness in our everyday life. We advocate that each of you adopt self-care as a core value and consciously shift your habits one by one to serve your highest good.
Small daily habits can have an extreme impact in the long term and culminate in a lifetime of wellness. What is one small step that you can take today to support your health and well-being?
In recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we will devote our September column to raising awareness about the warning signs and risk factors associated with suicide.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.
© 2021. Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Aug. 2021 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 1) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.