Determined Managing Partner

  • March 13, 2023

Dear Advy,

I recently read the wellness study report CBA took part in and I have to say that I am very disturbed by the results. I am a Managing Partner at a mid-size firm and have always thought we had a good handle on wellness initiative in the workplace. The results of the report have me second guessing this – especially after reading about the many barriers lawyers experience to seeking help. I’m wondering what the best way to get a pulse on how our lawyers are doing in terms of their wellbeing. Am I really receiving honest feedback about the workplace culture or could our lawyers just telling us what we want to hear in fear of retribution? 

Determined Managing Partner

Dear Determined,

To answer your last questions first:  No, you aren’t, and yes, they are.

No matter how supportive you feel you are being, I can guarantee that the lawyers and non-lawyers at your firm are not giving you frank feedback about your firm’s mental health culture.  

That sounds awfully negative. The thing to remember is that this reticence to speak openly and honestly about mental health and mental illness is a society-wide problem. This is not because you are a bad person or because your firm has a bad culture. Within living memory, revealing you had a mental health challenge like depression, anxiety or another condition meant a short trip to the unemployment lines. In fact, that still goes on. That fear that revealing you have a mental illness will be career-destroying lingers on a long time.

People are certainly telling you what they think you want to hear. That rule applies beyond the area of mental well-being, but let’s stick to that subject here. You are in a position that the people at your firm perceive – perhaps correctly – to be one that puts their career future in your power. That creates a lot of fear, especially for someone who is feeling vulnerable already. You are unlikely to change that dynamic in the short run.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the problem. You say you have a good handle on wellness initiatives in your workplace. Why do you have those initiatives? Presumably it is because you want the people you work with to be healthy as they can be. If that is your fundamental goal, then you can still have a real impact on workplace well-being even accepting that people will not give you honest feedback.

The single most helpful thing you can do as an individual to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and mental well-being in your workplace is to model what you might call non-stigmatic behaviour. Talk openly about what you do to manage your own mental health. If you have a brain, you have the potential for mental health challenges, just as the fact you have teeth means you have the potential for cavities. Get third-party help, whether that is therapy per se or other approaches such as coaching or just training in skills that help you maintain good mental health and talk about it. People will begin to treat mental health as something not to be ashamed of when they see others being unashamed about their own mental well-being. If the people around you see that you don’t think it is a big deal to get help and to acknowledge that your brain isn’t infallible, they will be more likely to adopt a similar attitude.

To adapt a saying that the environmental movement used for many years, this is an occasion to think globally and act locally. Are there big changes that need to happen to mitigate the effect of this work we do on our mental health?  For sure. High billable hour targets, imposing billable hour requirements on junior lawyers, compelling junior lawyers to engage in work that is inconsistent with their values and several other factors that for the time being seemed to be baked into our culture are all things that need to be tackled. However, none of those issues are going to be solved by workplace cultures that stigmatize mental health challenges.  As a managing partner you are one of the people with an outsized role in changing the culture of your workplace by publicly “walking the talk”.

Consider also making use of or creating outside channels for people to express their concerns about mental health in your workplace. Co-workers, and especially people in more senior positions at a workplace are in something of a conflict of interest when they try to be receptive to hearing about mental health issues because they are intimately connected to the career paths of the people they work with. The superior or peer you talk about your depression today may be the same person to decide what work you will get referred to you, whether you will get a promotion, or even whether you will be retained as an employee. Disclosing mental health challenges is high-risk when you think it could be used against you one day.

However, if your lawyers and staff know they can talk to someone outside of the firm, they can be more willing to be open. That outside channel could be your EAP provider, yes, but it could also be a peer support program offered by your local lawyer assistance program, 12-step programs or any number of other possibilities. You could also gain something of what you’re looking for by participating in those yourself. No, you won’t hear feedback directly about the people in your firm, but if you and/or your firm participates in those kinds of programs you will gain a sense of how the community in general is doing. Again, assuming your goal fundamentally is to help the people in your firm be as well as they can be, there is no harm in making use of those outside resources to help them.

Be well,

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