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We all know the practice of law is high stress. Law firms can be challenging places: client demands mean working beyond business hours, issues are real, stakes are high and tight deadlines abound.
“Lawyers, similar to those who work in the mental health or medical field, work with clients who are suffering,” says lawyer Jeena Cho, co-author of “The Anxious Lawyer.” “Let’s face it, rarely do clients come to visit a lawyer with happy news.” Unfortunately, lawyers are not generally trained to handle the negative impacts of this working environment.
Fortunately, some firms are leading the way in developing wellness programs. Here are five ways firms can help their people reduce stress and anxiety, improve cognition, and access tools to survive, even thrive, in a difficult working environment.
One of the foundations of wellness is mindfulness. Cho, a mindfulness coach, explains that mindfulness means being present in the moment and focusing on what is happening right now. The opposite would be distractedness — for example, while at work, focusing on all the things that need to be done at home. Meditation can be used to develop a state of consciousness where the mind is free of scattered thoughts. Cho suggests “sitting in a comfortable and alert posture, choosing an object of attention — for example, your breath—then repeatedly returning your attention back to that object, over and over again.”
Judi Cohen, founder of Warrior One and one of the top mindfulness teachers in the legal profession, says mindfulness and meditation create calm and focus the mind, cultivating greater attention so as to avoid being sucked into the multitask trap. She describes the “big difficulties” of the law as (1) the enormous volume of work, (2) our need to always spot the issues and look for what’s wrong, (3) our right/wrong mentality, and (4) constant conflict. Mindfulness training helps lawyers understand the science of the legal mind and how it plays out in our career and life.
“It can change the way we deal with ourselves, our stressors, other people and life,” Cohen says. Essentially, it allows us to manage our emotions better, to remain calm in the midst of the storm, without letting the anxiety cause burnout.
Susan Manch, who’s Chief of People & Development at international firm Norton Rose Fulbright, has worked with the firm’s benefits group to develop a firmwide program to encourage education and conversation about health and wellness. “We are working to create a culture of wellness,” says Manch, “and awareness is primary.”
The program started in May, and so far has had a theme for each month. June was “Commit to Be Fit,” with an educational program on healthy eating and physical activity, followed by an eight-week fitness challenge. The firm offers lunch-and-learn programs on topics such as nutrition, mindfulness, financial wellness, heart-healthy habits, employee benefits and resources, smoking cessation, and how to safely start an exercise program. A wellness page on the firm’s internal website includes links to their health insurance benefits and nurse line.
In addition, firms are offering attorneys opportunities to put health and wellness information to use to improve their lives. Norton Rose’s Houston office has installed blood pressure monitors on every other floor so employees can track their blood pressure to better understand what circumstances cause their stress. With that awareness, meditation and mindfulness programs can provide employees with the tools to better handle their stress. For example, Cohen and Cho offer multi-week mindfulness training programs and one-day workshops tailored specifically to lawyers. Each program has a slightly different focus, but they all have similar goals: creating mindfulness to improve job satisfaction and overall health.
Firms are also offering up healthy competitions to inspire their employees to get fit and be well:
According to Manch, Norton Rose Fulbright is incorporating health and wellness into its annual charity events by choosing active participation programs like Habitat for Humanity, where employees help to construct homes.
Wellness programs may also reduce a firm’s health insurance costs, especially when the program is based on a health insurance review of persistent health issues within the firm. This allows a firm to identify problems that can be remedied with the wellness program, such as creating better eating habits and healthfully managing stress. Insurance providers can also help identify the programs that will give the “biggest bang for the buck” based on their data and experience over time. For example, with knowledge of how many employees take a certain drug or exhibit signs of certain ailments, firms can tailor wellness programs to specifically address more of their employees’ health issues.
Plus, Judi Cohen believes corporate clients will ultimately want to know if the firms they are hiring offer mindfulness training, much like clients consider a firm’s diversity profile when deciding who to hire. “This is the way we are going,” she says.
I hope she is right.
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