Blueprint for Healthy Lawyer Workplaces

LawyerLawyers are more than twice as likely as the general population to suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. I have heard or spoken those words numerous times in educational programs; many times I have been a co-panelist or presenter with a representative of the Illinois Lawyer’s Assistance Program (LAP).

What Is LAP?

Most states have an organization like LAP, an organization that helps lawyers, judges, law students, and their families with alcohol abuse, drug dependency, or mental health problems. In addition to helping the affected lawyer, judge or law student, LAP aims to protect clients and educate the legal community about the growing problem of substance abuse and mental illness.

Another depressing statistic: lawyers are six times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.

How great it was to read that our friends Down Under (who share the common law system with us, Canada and others) have progressed beyond discussing the problem to taking concrete action. Yesterday, the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) launched guidelines to tackle the high rate of psychological distress in the law. The result of research conducted around the world, the guidelines lay out 13 psychosocial factors critical to psychological health and provide a blueprint for legal organizations of any type or size to implement them.

The guidelines are available for free. Although civility and respect is its own factor (number 4), those concepts permeate several other factors, including number one on the list of 13: organizational culture. As stated in the document, a healthy organizational culture is a work environment characterized by trust, honesty and fairness in which people show sincere respect for others’ ideas, values and beliefs.

For those of us who may have had experience with a workplace bully, it is no surprise that the guidelines promote a work environment where employees are respectful and considerate in their interactions with one another, with customers, clients, and the public, as well as management taking steps to effectively dealing with situations involving harassment, discrimination, violence or stigma in the workplace.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the guidelines is the suggested framework for implementation.  Recognizing that different organizations will be at different stages in their journey, and will have different resources, there is a template for implementation starting with basic, and progressing to standard, advanced, and best practices.

For example, the implementation for PS4, civility and respect provides:

Basic: Establish values that include civility and respect

Standard: Develop performance and promotion criteria based on civility, respect and professionalism. Foster a culture of diversity and collegiality in the workplace; Develop guidelines for intra-office communications, including email.

Advanced: Establish assessment of these values through appraisal process; evaluate feedback from clients and other professionals as to communications and relations with workplace; evaluate feedback from staff as to communications and relations within workplace.

Best practices: Measure staff, client and other professional satisfaction with workplace, including communications, delivery of services, responsiveness; Respond to concerns and conflicts in a timely and transparent manner.

The Guidelines were developed based on research efforts of several institutions in Australia and Canada, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The impetus was a January 2009 University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Institute ‘Courting the Blues’ report involving study of thousands of law students and lawyers showing that 1 in 4 barristers, 1 in 3 solicitors and half of law students are at high or very high risk of suffering from a diagnosable mental illness.

TJMF is a memorial fund honoring the name and memory of a lawyer who took his own life with a mission to raise awareness, disseminate research and medical information and bring about change.

The organization is seeking law firms to become signatories supporting the Guidelines and fifteen law firms have signed on so far.

We lawyers have been at the forefront in making sure that requirements regarding physical health and safety exist in most workplaces.  What about our psychological health and safety? TJMF took a much-needed step forward in providing resources to help protect psychological health and safety in legal workplaces.

Anyone know of any such efforts taking place in the U.S.?

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