We are experiencing what our email inboxes repeatedly call “unprecedented times”. Many Canadians are facing lost employment and financial strain; many are taking on a large number of new responsibilities as they act as home-schooling teacher and caretaker for their children; and all Canadians face the new anxieties and fears now associated with shopping for food and necessities during a pandemic. Physical distancing policies have turned our world upside down, and it is challenging for many of us to stay isolated within our homes. These new stressors are sources of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty, and can have serious deleterious impacts on our mental health.

Earlier this year, we published an issue of LAWPRO Magazine focusing on mental health concerns and treatment for lawyers. We never could have guessed how immediately relevant much of the content and our resources would become. Here’s how those resources can help you adapt to our new status quo and stay mentally and physically healthy.

Lawyers: Know thyself

Even in ordinary circumstances, mental health issues take a serious toll on many Canadians. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), in a given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness such as depression, severe anxiety, or stress disorders. By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, almost half will have or have had a mental illness.

These problems are even more common among lawyers: The American Bar Association has found that the likelihood of depression is 3.6 times higher for practising lawyers. These pre-existing risks are exasperated by the novel stresses brought about by COVID. Our article on “Understanding mental health in the legal profession” explores the long history of lawyers’ increased susceptibility to mental health problems.

It may all feel overwhelming— this is understandable. Some lawyers may be experiencing an increased workload during the pandemic; some may see much of their work dry up. Regardless, we aren’t going back to “before times”, and we will all need to adapt.

It’s important for lawyers to know that their mental health concerns are common, and there is no shame in experiencing a mental health issue. We are all human and are all susceptible to the psychological impacts of the pandemic.

Embracing change with the Member Assistance Program

When it comes to working under physical distancing conditions, the practicePRO website has collected a series of articles on adapting your practice to the new normal. But working from home and embracing appropriate technologies to assist in practising law during physical distancing is only part of the transformation. We must also adapt our mindset and lifestyles to stay healthy and effective during this period.

That’s where the Member Assistance Program comes in. In Ontario, the MAP is co-funded by the Law Society of Ontario and LAWPRO to provide mental health and wellness assistance to lawyers, paralegals, students, and, crucially their families as well. It provides numerous resources aimed at improving mental health and wellness.

The MAP can be used by lawyers as part of their efforts to adapt to our new times.

For example, the MAP provides articles and e-learning courses on subjects such as “Embracing Change” and strategies for dealing with high-stress lifestyle changes. These e-courses qualify for LAWPRO’s Risk Management Credit and can be completed at each lawyers’ convenience.

The MAP also provides assistance at no cost to lawyers through peer-to-peer support; professional counselling for depression, trauma, and other mental health concerns; childcare and eldercare resources; and lifestyle coaching for subjects such as smoking cessation.

Our full article on the MAP provides additional information on each resource and an interview with one of the peer-volunteers providing one-on-one support.

Law firms: Know each other and know the red flags of mental health concerns

Stressful extenuating circumstances are certain to negatively affect our mindset and affect our attitudes. This is normal, and it’s important to give each other and ourselves additional latitude with our own efficacy and actions. To some extent, we all may be bearing the symptoms of deteriorating mental health conditions. However we still need to attend to the warning signs of anxiety, stress, or depression when they arise.

For example, colleagues may have difficulty completing basic tasks, even if they have more free time. Some may be obsessing over anxieties about the future to the point that it impacts their abilities to complete obligations. These problems can grow if not properly addressed.

Review our article on mental health “warning signs” and how firms can look out for the well-being of their employees. Law firms can help employees by setting supportive workplace cultures. Check in with those working remotely to ensure they are supported, and have access to assistance if they are experiencing difficulties. Set an example for co-workers and employees by discussing your own concerns, stresses, and mental health, and the steps you are taking to protect your resilience during these times.

Taking a break from your practice

If you feel the best course of action for you at this time is to take a personal leave of absence from your practice, for personal health or professional reasons, you may qualify for a temporary exemption from insurance. Exemptions are available for those who will not be practising (with some exceptions) for at least 30 days but are planning to return to practice within five years. To ensure your practice is adequately protected, see our article on taking a leave of absence before stepping away from your responsibilities.

Keeping social while social distancing

Maintaining your health is part of maintaining your practice. Physically, that may mean finding new ways to exercise or get fresh air while still physically distancing from others. Psychologically, that may mean finding new ways to retain your work routine and work-life balance even while working from home.

Perhaps most important of all, don’t forget to reach out to co-workers, friends, or family, to maintain social connections during this time. Virtual water-cooler discussions can go a long way to restoring a sense of normalcy to our days, and remind us that even if we’re isolated, we’re not alone.

Categories: Wellness and Balance