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Wellness check-up: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Wellness check-up: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

As we approached and then quietly surpassed the grim one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, I was struck by the number of articles being published regarding the negative impact COVID-19 has had on our collective well-being, our mental health in particular[1]. Despite being among the fortunate few whose jobs, for the most part, were saved by the seamless transition to a remote working environment, lawyers and other white-collar professionals are by no means immune to this trend. Indeed, The Globe and Mail recently reported that:

Nearly a year into physical separation from colleagues, bosses and clients – sometimes coupled with kids trapped at home – white collar professionals are cracking. Often, top performers who tend to push through the pain are those who are struggling the most. A recent Morneau Shepell survey found that 40 per cent of managers in finance and professional services have considered leaving their jobs since the pandemic started.

It’s an unexpected development, given that white collar workers are precisely the people who were expected to be doing the best. For the most part, their jobs have been protected from the economic devastation of the past year. While small businesses and service sector employees have been decimated by lockdowns, workers in industries such as finance, tech, law and accounting have been able to keep their jobs – and largely have the flexibility to work from their homes or vacation properties. (…)

But it’s now clear that for many white collar professionals the struggle is very real. There isn’t an obvious reason why they are feeling this way now. Financial success can mask mounting psychological stresses – especially because white collar workers can easily tell themselves that they’ve come through the pandemic relatively unscathed and shouldn’t be struggling. (…)

Why are white collar workers hitting the wall? It’s a toxic mix of more work, less fun and some organizational trauma.

To start, many people are putting in longer hours, with research showing these employees are working 2 to 2.5 hours more a day than before the pandemic. Several factors are at play, but they often boil down to no clear separation between work and home life. (…)[2] (my emphasis)

No separation between work and home life…sound familiar? I know it does for me!

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The exercise of wading through this flood of reports on psychological distress in the workplace caused me to revisit a previous contribution I made to this space a few years ago. In June 2019, I had commented on the results of an extensive survey commissioned by the Quebec Bar Association to measure the psychological health at work among its members (see https://imk.ca/en/blog/understanding-plenty-time-perhaps-another-shift-culture/). The study showed that more than 40 per cent of Quebec lawyers suffer from some form of psychological distress, a set of symptoms sometimes similar to a burnout or depression. I found the results alarming and felt compelled to issue a call to action.

Now this…

I decided to dig a little into the Barreau’s research and was curious to learn that it has been ongoing, with additional studies being conducted by the same team of researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke who originally conducted the survey back in 2015. One study in particular caught my eye: « Comparaison entre les femmes et les hommes quant aux stresseurs à l’origine de la détresse psychologique chez les avocat(e)s québécois(es) : étude du rôle direct et indirect des heures facturables », by Martine Gingues.[3] The study canvassed close to a thousand lawyers in the province (roughly ¾ women, ¼ men), with an average age in the mid-thirties. Among other things, the study set out to determine whether the traditional business model of law, anchored in billable hours, had an impact, direct or indirect, on the psychological wellness of participants.

Recall that in Understanding Plenty, I had offered the following proposition:

To the extent lawyers continue to stubbornly adhere to business models that essentially sell time for profit, now may be an appropriate occasion to revisit just how much of it we really want (or need) to sell. In light of the Barreau’s recent study, I would be curious to know what if any relationship exists between increasing demands on supplying one’s time and the incidence of psychological distress in any workplace. Surely there comes a point where the marginal benefit to the bottom line becomes outweighed by the overall wellness impact of demanding more and more time – billable or otherwise – from young lawyers?

It seems I now have an answer to my question, and it is unsurprising. Mme Gingues’ paper makes two principal observations, and chief among them is the following: Le modèle d’affaires axé sur les heures facturables a un impact (direct et indirect) sur la détresse psychologique, et ce, chez les hommes (effets indirects) et les femmes (effets directs et indirects) avocat(e)s. The author notes moreover « qu’un suivi serré de la part des associés concernant l’atteinte des objectifs d’heures facturables semblait contribuer au fait de vivre de la détresse psychologique. »

The paper concludes by noting the multidimensional nature of psychological distress among Quebec lawyers, and makes some helpful recommendations:

(…) En effet, au-delà des facteurs organisationnels ressortis comme étant significatifs, les résultats tendent à démontrer le poids important de la sphère familiale et de la sphère individuelle dans la compréhension des dynamiques entourant la détresse psychologique au travail.

Conséquemment, les organisations doivent développer davantage d’intervention dans une perspective holistique de la santé, c’est-à-dire en voyant la personne comme un tout multidimensionnel dont les différentes sphères de vie tendent à s’appuyer mutuellement. Ce n’est pas seulement le travail qui est responsable, ni la famille, mais bien un cocktail particulier de contraintes et de ressources avec lesquelles l’individu doit composer avec ses propres forces, ses propres compétences, etc. (…)

Finalement, comme le démontrent les résultats de la présente étude, le modèle d’heures facturables est significatif pour expliquer la détresse psychologique chez les femmes avocates, et ce modèle d’affaires aurait de multiples effets indirects sur la santé mentale au travail, tant chez les femmes que chez les hommes. Ce résultat pointe vers l’importance de considérer un changement des pratiques en matière d’heures facturables, notamment au sein des cabinets privés. D’autres mécanismes de gestion de la performance des avocat(e)s pourraient être plus porteurs dans une perspective de santé psychologique. (my emphasis)

As I hinted back in June 2019, I am in full agreement with Mme Gingues – and now I have the science-based evidence to back it up!

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It has been suggested by many commentators that the pandemic has offered us both the experience and the opportunity to rethink the way we lawyers approach our work. Much of this discussion has focused on where we work (i.e. rethinking our needs and use of commercial real estate), rather than how. In my view, Mme Gingues’ study should give us pause to also reconsider the way we monitor and judge the performance of lawyers – young ones in particular – such that we promote rather than erode the psychological well-being of our offspring.[4]

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[1] See, for example, This is your brain on pandemic: What chronic stress is doing to us (https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/pandemic-brain-stress-effect-lethargy-unproductive-1.5972055)

[2] See Working from home is causing breakdowns. Ignoring the problem and blaming the pandemic is no longer an option (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-people-are-at-the-point-of-emotional-exhaustion-why-white-collar/)

[3] https://savoirs.usherbrooke.ca/bitstream/handle/11143/17028/Gingues_Martine_MSc_2020.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[4] The views expressed here are those of the author only. Anyone curious about this line of thought might also be interested in the following reports and references:

Barreau du Quebec. (2016). La tarification horaire à l’heure de la réflexion. Rapport de recherche. Retrieved from http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/bs2628443

Cadieux, N., & Gladu-Martin, A. (2016). Déterminants du stress et de la détresse psychologique chez les avocat(e)s membres du Barreau du Québec. Rapport de recherche : Étude préliminaire-Phase I. Rapport déposé auprès du Barreau du Quebec.

James, C. (2017). Legal practice on time: The ethical risk and inefficiency of the six-minute unit. Alternative Law Journal, 42(1), 61-66. https://doi.org/10.1177/1037969X17694786

Schiltz, P. J. (1999). On being a happy, healthy, and ethical member of an unhappy, unhealthy, and unethical profession. Vanderbilt Law Review, 52(4), 871-951. Retrieved from https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol52/iss4/2

Tremblay, D. G. (2014). Conciliation emploi-famille et porosité des temps sociaux chez les avocats et les avocates: des stratégies de report et d’intensification pour arriver à concilier? Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 26(2), 402-426. doi:10.3138/cjwl.26.2.08

Tremblay, D. G., & Mascova, E. (2013). Les avocates, les avocats et la conciliation travail-famille. Montreal, QC: Les editions du remue-ménage.

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