The high levels of depression and burnout amongst lawyers is a much talked about area of the profession, with no definitive answers as yet on how to alleviate such problems. Andrew May and Danielle Buckley ask whether psychology has a role to play
Each week newspapers and magazines contain yet another story on the link between lawyers, stress and mental illness. These stories, while altruistic in nature, highlight the well-known fact that lawyers report higher than average mental health issues and, more importantly, call for something to be done to prevent mental health issues among lawyers.
It is true that lawyers report higher levels of depression than other professionals. A study in 2009 reported 31 per cent of lawyers had experienced high or very high distress in the previous 30 days and 56 per cent reported experiencing depression.
Lawyers also manifest lower levels of awareness around mental health and are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs as coping mechanisms. It is also clear that lawyers have a preference to manage themselves and are not keen on speaking up.
As law firms continue to grow their profit and prestige, more and more highly ambitious, educated and intelligent law students will compete for positions and, ultimately, nothing will change - unless lawyers and their firms are prepared to change the way they approach sustainable performance.
A new question to consider
Based on the mechanism of evolution, we know that the fierce conditions encountered in law firms and in-house legal departments will naturally select for the best lawyers. So rather than asking how to prevent illness in lawyers, a better question is, 'How can we apply the science of psychology to enable lawyers to reach their full performance potential and get to the top of their game?'
“Imagine the look on your colleague’s face when you tell them you’re taking a five minute break before your next meeting – that’s a whole unit of billing isn’t it?”
From a scientific perspective, an interesting thing about lawyers is that some of the attributes that make them so successful are also the ones that prevent than from reaching their full performance potential. Take perfectionism, for example. While required, when overdone it creates a hyper-diligent, highly anxious individual with an inability to switch off and unwind due to fear of failure.
Traits like competitiveness are a valuable asset in a high-performing lawyer, however when not controlled this can result in an argumentative, aggressive and insecure individual - not the traits of a successful high performer.
Lawyers also need to be risk-averse and sceptical. Again, when this is overdone and not managed, it creates a series of neural pathways that inhibit and restrict access to internal coping mechanisms that every human and every lawyer needs to function, both on and off the job.
While lawyers pride themselves on being highly intelligent and highly educated, many lack the self-awareness skills to monitor their own behaviour, assess their performance (other than on a time sheet or by way of the quality of their advice) and intelligently apply the right tools to sustain their performance.
When we perform at our best we apply a strategic approach to the way we think, the way we work, the way we recharge and the way we eat and move.
Psychology for performance - the way we think
To be a high performer, we need to be at our sharpest 'psychologically'. When we are mentally fit we have improved cognitive functionality, including improved ability to focus and concentrate. How this contributes to personal performance is a no-brainer (pun intended). We can and should train our brain like an athlete trains their body for agility, speed, strength and endurance.
As lawyers are required to 'perform' a large percentage of the time, they need skills to be able to switch on useful thinking styles and switch off unhelpful ones. Research shows high performers are able to apply positive thinking skills to any situation, regardless of how dire it may seem. When they do, they increase their ability to make clear decisions, build resilience and deal with change.
Productivity for performance - the way we work
Lawyers work long hours and today, a big contributor to overwork and potential burnout is technology overload. When we asked lawyers the biggest barrier to their performance, the answer was, 'Too many emails, too many distractions and too many methods of communication - I'm always contactable'. Drawing from research in the fields of praxeology, cybernetics, psychology, cognitive theories and time management, getting lawyers to change their personal productivity behaviours results in a boost in performance, productivity and profits.
Recovery for performance - the way we recharge
The world's leading athletes and sporting teams spend more money and time on recovery than they do on training. In order to be at their best on game day, they balance the stress of competition and training with behaviours that allow their bodies and minds to recover.
The corporate world has been slow to catch on to the need to balance stress with planned recovery for sustainable performance. Imagine the look on your colleague's face when you tell them you're taking a 5-minute break before your next meeting - that's a whole unit of billing isn't it?
Physiology for performance - the way we eat and move
For too long, too many of us have let work become an excuse for lack of exercise and terrible nutrition. As children, we are moving all the time. As adults, we move less and less. We sit at our desks, at meeting tables, in cars, on buses and on planes. We eat on the go, at odd hours or not at all. You are kidding yourself if you think this is not affecting your performance.
Our bodies hit their physiological peak in our early to mid-30s and then decline year after year unless we train and eat the right way. To be a high performing lawyer you need to step away from the desk and move.
Where to from here?
It's not rocket science, butt it is backed by science: if you want to be a high performing lawyer, and you want your firm or team to be the same, then you need to create a personal performance strategy that allows you to deliver your best work, on time and error free - all the time.
Andrew May runs the Performance Clinic in Sydney that specialises in executive coaching and workplace training. Danielle Buckley is the director of Psychology at The Performance Clinic