4 Obstacles to Wellness and What to Do About Them
Attorney wellness and work-life balance are on everyone’s mind in BigLaw these days. And for good reason — the grueling pace and the intense pressure take a toll. Depression and substance addiction afflict attorneys at a rate four times higher than those in other professions.
It’s heartening to see many firms begin to take wellness seriously. And yet, the main driver of burnout — the realities created by the billable hours model — isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The fact is, it’s both a deeply entrenched approach and one that’s highly profitable for firms.
Although many firms are beginning to offer more resources, support and flexible working conditions, the fact is that taking responsibility for your own well-being is the only way to safeguard it. A quick Google search for attorney wellness tips garners over 10 million hits — the advice is out there, and attorneys are eager for it. Yet it can feel disheartening to be told over and over what to do — yoga! meditation! more sleep! vacations! — when you can’t see a way to fit those things into a schedule already packed to the gills with too much work and stress.
Here we explore four of the biggest obstacles to actually incorporating wellness into your professional life and ideas for chipping away at them. After all, law firm life will always be stressful and demanding to some degree; finding small ways to improve balance just might make a big difference in the long run.
Obstacle 1. Heavy (sometimes unrelenting) workloads
Clients who email 10 times a day, partners and other supervisors calling with requests at all hours, the crushing weight of looming deadlines — there is no shortage of outside forces exerting pressure on you. Relieving some of that pressure will reduce stress and perhaps even buy you more time.
Identify the actual demands. Sometimes making sacrifices to meet demands is just part of the job — but if you’re not distinguishing actual demands from assumed demands, you could be burning yourself out unnecessarily. Take a moment to ask yourself whether the action you’re undertaking has been explicitly requested, or if you are trying to meet expectations that you assume someone has for you. When you notice that you’re responding to an assumed demand, ask for explicit clarification. For instance, when a partner habitually sends you emails about non-urgent matters late at night, instead of assuming you are expected to reply in the moment, simply ask. You may well find that there are fewer actual demands on your plate than you’d thought.
Note: Unless under exigent circumstances, many supervisors don’t expect responses to middle-of-the-night emails — they’re simply sending emails during the time windows available to them. That said, many supervisors don’t think to clarify this expectation unless prompted for clarification — so ask!
Negotiate your workload. Your supervisors aren’t keeping track of everything that’s on your plate, so when they pile on more than you can reasonably handle, the only one who can speak up is you. That doesn’t have to mean flat refusal. Instead, you might think of a partner (or supervisor) request as an opening bid in a negotiation. For example, if meeting a stated deadline is impossible, offer an alternative one or suggest placing a different assignment on the back burner in order to tackle the new request. Sure, you’ll run into some partners who will steamroll your proposed boundaries — but you’ll quickly learn who is willing to work with you and where you can push back effectively.
Note: Your supervisors are often overloaded, too. Taking steps to clarify priorities and deadlines can cultivate your supervisor’s awareness — and make future conversations on similar issues more navigable.
Set reasonable (but not rigid) boundaries. When you have a supervisor or client who routinely texts you in the middle of the night or emails all day Saturday, flatly declaring that you don’t work evenings or weekends is usually unrealistic. But you can work at setting boundaries that protect your much-needed downtime without going off the grid. In fact, the very technology that keeps us in 24/7 work mode can be used to our advantage. For example, when you need to decompress but also wish to remain available for emergencies, you might consider using your phone’s “Do not disturb while driving” feature. This will auto-reply to texts letting the sender know that they can reply “Urgent” if your response is needed right away. You can also set up an auto-reply on your emails during certain hours to let senders know that you are not checking email (within a time-limited window) at that time and inviting them to text you if their request is urgent.
Note: Partners and other supervisors who carve out such windows of downtime themselves make it much easier for other attorneys to do so. Those who openly communicate finite time periods when they’re unavailable (e.g., to enjoy some evening time with family before getting back online) are celebrated by their teams. If you notice a supervisor showing leadership in this area, make your appreciation known — it will encourage others to follow suit.
Note: Before adopting any of the tactics described above, discuss your planned approach with those with whom you work closely. Many supervisors recognize their team members’ needs to create reasonable boundaries — but they also need to ensure your working style fits with the particular needs and circumstances of the whole team.
Seek support. If your firm has any systems or programs (even if they’re imperfect) in place to help distribute and balance workloads, use them. If a particular partner is gobbling up all your time, ask a mentor or other trusted advisor to run interference. And when a project is understaffed, ask for the additional resources your team needs. After all, having the support you need is crucial for achieving excellence — when you and others on your team are stretched too thin, work quality will inevitably suffer. Frame your requests for resources in those terms, and the powers that be are more likely to see the importance of keeping you from drowning.
Note: It can take time for some law firms to concretely respond to a request for additional resources, especially personnel — hiring takes time. That said, progress can’t be made until you convey the need, and in the meantime your firm may be able to suggest some interim solutions.
Obstacle 2. Feeling helpless
Lots of associates feel they must prove their toughness by working constantly without complaint, sacrificing sleep with a smile and ignoring their own needs. It’s easy to feel helpless when endless hours and stress seem inevitable. Finding a sense of agency is the antidote.
Figure out what you can control. Some things are out of your hands, but others are within your power to make decisions about. You may find it helpful to brainstorm a list of everything that’s within your control — like the kinds of boundaries you can set, how you consciously react to stress, your screen time and sleep hygiene — and focus on strategies for nurturing those areas. For everything else, let it go — you don’t have to like every aspect of your day-to-day, but wrestling with things you cannot control only increases your stress level.
Use your resources. Find out what your firm has available — An EAP? Coaching programs? On-premises gym? Healthy snacks? Lunchtime yoga or meditation? Flexible work arrangements or work-from-home options? Take advantage of everything you can. With more and more law firms making efforts to support wellness, there’s a good chance you have resources at your disposal — but they only help if you use them.
Create an off-work trigger. Burnout is amplified by the sense that we’re never really off work. Knowing that we’re expected to reply to messages at any time can create a constant, low-level tension — an insidious notion that we can never really relax. And, if you’re working from home, it may be even more difficult to separate your working hours from your personal hours. Although you may indeed need to remain accessible on evenings and weekends, for many having any semblance of work-life balance requires that you switch out of work mode when you leave the office — at least for certain time periods. One of the most effective ways to do so is to create a specific, concrete trigger that tells your brain “I’m off work now.” It may be turning off the light, closing the door to your home office and stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. Or, it might be changing your clothes as soon as you get home from the office, spending a few minutes stretching or just washing your face and brushing your teeth. In fact, it could be as simple as getting into your car and spending 60 seconds doing a quick ritual — close your eyes, breathe deeply, relax your jaw, gently press your temples — before you drive off. All that matters is that your trigger is specific, concrete and habitual; your brain will quickly begin associating this trigger with disconnecting — albeit briefly — from work and lowering stress.
Remind yourself of how you’re benefiting. Yes, benefiting! You’ve achieved great successes to arrive at this place in your career — and you have exciting future professional opportunities ahead of you. Everything you’re juggling now — the substantive work, the array of personalities, the complex client dynamics, the pace of work, the flow of assignments, even the challenges of time and stress management — is yours. Your hard work is augmenting your professional experience, both your substantive expertise and leadership and management skills, in ways that enhance the working capital of your professional self. These stay with you, wherever you go.
Obstacle 3. Anxiety about the future
You put a lot of time, money and hard work into your education — and the pressure to make it all worthwhile can create a feedback loop of anxiety. It’s natural to react by working even harder and eventually burning yourself out. When your nose is to the grindstone, it’s hard to see the road ahead. Looking at the big picture can help manage anxiety and relieve some of the pressure.
Remind yourself that growing pains are okay. As discussed above, even during especially stressful periods, there are ways in which you are growing — facing challenges, meeting demands, accomplishing tasks — and that will benefit you in your future endeavors. That personal and professional growth is an accomplishment in and of itself. Things will become easier over time, and then you’ll encounter new challenges that you can learn from!
Check in with yourself. When was the last time you sat down with no distractions and reflected on what you really want out of your career and your life? Doing a periodic self-check-in can put your day-to-day grind in a larger perspective that both reduces your stress and makes you feel more in control. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions: Is this career path still what I really want? What is and isn’t worth sacrificing? What gives me joy and purpose in my work, and how can I have more of it? An attitude of openness and curiosity lets you reflect on your current state and gain real insight into how you can shape both the present and the future.
Note: Just the act of having these self-check-ins can be worthwhile. And it’s not necessary to have all of the answers. Take some comfort in knowing that the work you do to cultivate self-reflection skills will serve you — and your career — down the road.
Don’t go it alone. Self-care doesn’t have to happen in isolation. In fact, wellness thrives in conversation and community. A counselor or therapist can be an invaluable support in developing your resilience. A professional development coach could offer practical solutions for managing stress and balancing your workload. A peer group of other attorneys might offer a welcome opportunity to connect and share strategies with others. So don’t stop with talking to yourself — start conversations with people who nourish you.
Note: It can be useful for you to cultivate a wide array of advisors and gather a range of insights and advice from others. The more perspectives you consider, the more tools you’ll have in your self-awareness arsenal.
Note: Don’t ignore a potential need for mental health support. If you think you could benefit from meeting with a therapist or other mental health professional, make that a priority. And if there’s anything standing in your way — lack of time, fear of stigma, the chore of finding a provider — work to overcome it, because your mental health is fundamental to your wellness.
Be the change. Regardless of whether or not you plan to make a career move elsewhere, the reality is you are where you are for now and you might as well find ways to make the most of it. Sometimes, getting what you need — a vacation, fewer billable hours, a flexible or hybrid work arrangement, actual weekends (or one weekend day) — requires setting boundaries that can feel a little scary. But advocating for your needs can be empowering. If your firm has a committee dedicated to wellness initiatives, join it. If a firm policy is wreaking havoc on associates’ mental health, bring it up with a trusted mentor and look for ways to get your concerns in front of leadership. And if you have any amount of seniority, set an example for those who look up to you — book that vacation, commit to no-screen-Sunday, push back on unreasonable policies or deadlines. You might find that advocating for your needs delivers a sense of autonomy that itself enhances your wellness.
Obstacle 4. Lack of time
On a purely practical level, there is simply not enough time in the day to do everything. If you’re billing over 2,000 hours a year, it’s inevitable that other parts of your life — family time, recreation, sleep, and all that exercise and meditation that’s supposed to balance out the stress of firm life — are simply going to suffer. No level of exhortations to “just do some yoga” will magically materialize the extra hours you’d need to get on your mat. So instead of trying to cram more items onto your to-do list (however nice those things would be), see if you can find ways to tuck little bits of wellness into your day — after all, perfect need not be the enemy of good (or even just a little better).
Integrate “mealtimes” (healthy snacks) throughout your day. The advice to eat plenty of healthy food is tricky when your breakfast is wolfed during your commute, lunch hours are unheard of and dinner might not happen until midnight, if at all. Even when you’re working from home it can be tough to take a proper meal break. But your body and brain need a steady source of fuel. So make healthy snacking a consistent part of your day. Anytime you’re in front of your computer or in the car, have a ready stash of veggies and high-protein finger food — carrots, string cheese, nuts, apples, yogurt — within reach. And if you’re craving a sugar rush or chip fix, go for it. There’s no need to add even more stress with rigid food rules — a “healthy enough” approach is enough, and eating something is better than going hungry.
Sip to stay hydrated. Dehydration is exhausting. So is lugging around a giant water bottle and resolving (then quickly forgetting) to drink it. Sneak in more water and less caffeine, which amps up anxiety and stress, by rotating your beverages. Every other time you go for a cup of coffee or soda, substitute a glass of water. If your eight-cup-a-day coffee habit can become a four coffees and four waters habit, you’ll feel better without having to think too hard about hydration.
Take one minute per hour. Although it would be lovely to sit in a dim room and meditate for half an hour, it’s rarely realistic. But you can spare 60 seconds. Studies have shown that just one minute of deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts the brakes on anxiety and stress. Set an alarm on your phone for once per hour; when it goes off, set a timer for one minute, close your eyes, and take deep, slow belly breaths. To keep your mind from wandering, count your breaths as you inhale and exhale. (Bonus: You’ll know how many deep breaths it takes to calm your nerves, which can come in handy when you need quick calming in a stressful situation.)
Do a lap or two. When your gym time is overtaken by your work time, getting the exercise that supports both emotional and physical health is a challenge. So sneak a little bit more movement into your day by extending whatever movement you already do. Going to the restroom? Use one on a different floor, and take the stairs. Need to pop into someone’s office? Do a lap around the floor on your way back to your desk. Waiting for the microwave? Stretch your arms above your head and arch your back a few times. It’s no SoulCycle session, but it can give you a few extra drops of energy and calm — and maybe help unkink that knot in your neck.
Work-life balance and well-being come up consistently when we coach attorneys at all levels — it will always be one of the particular challenges of law firm life. Creating a sustainable balance that supports your career goals and nourishes your life requires more than quick-fix tips, and it certainly can’t be achieved by gritting your teeth and hoping you’ll stumble across a magic lantern complete with three wishes.
Importantly, if you think you could benefit from mental health resources — like a therapist or psychiatrist — don’t hesitate to make use of them. Supporting your mental health is fundamental to not just a thriving career, but a fulfilling life.
What we’ve seen work for the attorneys we talk with is a combination of genuine self-reflection, practice (and more practice) and a few small-yet-meaningful behaviors — ones that are actually feasible. Work on developing the combination that works for you, and you’ll eventually find what healthy balance looks like in your life — and learn to thrive in the world of BigLaw.