Attorney Wellness in the Time of COVID-19

May 6, 2020Article

In just a short time, COVID-19 has changed everything. Our daily lives in March and April bore almost no resemblance to February with shops closed, offices closed or working with skeleton staffs, and restaurants and sports arenas empty. The legal profession has not been immune to the turmoil as many firms have required their attorneys to work from home until health and government officials give the signal that it is okay to begin a return to working in an office setting.

While the imminent threat that everyone is worried about is the virus itself, another threat looms on the horizon: the mental health and wellness of attorneys and office staff in such an uncertain time. As the CDC states on its website, “fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions.”[1] Mental Health America, a non-profit dedicated to addressing the needs of persons with mental illness, has found an increase of nearly 20 percent in clinical anxiety cases since the pandemic began.[2]

The fact that Americans have been, to a great extent, isolated from family, friends, and loved ones has exacerbated the toll that COVID-19 has had on our collective mental health. A recent survey of Americans who are sheltering in place or quarantining found that 47 percent of them reported negative mental health effects due to stress related to COVID-19.[3] The worry and anxiety about risks unrelated to getting ill are not unfounded, as more than 20 million people have filed for unemployment in the past month.[4]

Attorneys and legal professionals already have stressful jobs, and the incidence of mental health concerns has been an on-going issue in the legal field. Attorneys are nearly four times more likely to be depressed when compared to the general population, and 28 percent of attorneys suffer from clinical depression.[5] Similarly, nearly 20 percent of attorneys suffer from anxiety disorders.[6]

When one considers the unique challenges that attorneys face, it is understandable to see why stress can take such a toll on the legal profession. Attorneys have to make snap judgments on a daily basis which can affect the financial wellbeing or the liberty of their clients. Secondary to the professional judgment side of the equation, attorneys in the private sector are also business people who have overhead to pay, hours to bill, and clients to market to in order to secure additional business. In short, the legal profession already was stressful enough before the entire world changed, seemingly overnight, in March of 2020.

So what can be done to protect one’s mental wellbeing? Although every person’s needs, stress, and mental health are different, there are at least small tasks that every legal professional can try to achieve which will help maintain mental health. To that end, the Mayo Clinic recommends several self-care strategies to help.[7]

First, attorneys need to take care of their bodies. A silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak may be that attorneys who previously felt that they did not have the time to cook healthy meals, get enough sleep, and exercise now have ample time to do so. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you try to keep a regular schedule of going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, just as you likely would have done when working in the office was the norm.

As part of taking care of your body, try to eat healthy and exercise, even if it is just for a few minutes a day. The grocery supply chain has, for the most part, returned to normal (with some occasional hygiene items still difficult to locate), so finding ingredients for preparing your favorite meals should not be an issue.

Second, take time to unwind. Limit your screen time and set a “cut off” time every night from your work email – at least 30 minutes before going to bed each night. The CDC recommends that you limit your exposure to news stories since hearing about and focusing on the pandemic can be upsetting and can trigger mental health issues.[8] On top of that, find a way to relax, whether it is with a book, with meditation, or even just sitting outside and getting some fresh air and sun.

Third, take care of your mind as best as possible. Try to stick to a schedule as best as you can. Stay busy with work, household projects, or hobbies that can be enjoyed consistent with government regulations during the pandemic. Pay close attention to what things trigger your anxiety, depression, or even just negative thoughts and do your best to avoid your triggers during this time of uncertainty. Try not to let external forces invade your inner peace as best as possible.

Fourth, maintain connections with those who are not sheltering in place with you. Zoom and FaceTime have become invaluable tools during the pandemic, so use them to keep up with friends and family. Reach out to old friends or family you have not seen in awhile, and find out how they are doing and what they are doing to cope during these times. You may find that the shared sacrifice we are all making can help bring you together with someone who has fallen out of your normal life.

As my wife and I are both attorneys, we have been living with the stress of being legal professionals in a time of pandemic together. In our own home, we have tried to set physical boundaries for work and recreation. If you have the space, set aside a “work” area that is separate from the rest of the house. When in that space, be fully committed to “work-mode” and when outside of that area, be committed to recreation or family or whatever other priorities you may have. Setting boundaries may help your home-life feel more like life did prior to the pandemic.

We have also set up “dates” or “happy hours” to break the monotony. For us, these dates require a commitment to turning our phones off, wearing “real” clothes (no sweat pants or t-shirts), and not talking about work or the pandemic. We have found that for just an hour or two each night, we can escape the stress and enjoy each other’s company while not thinking about what is going on outside our walls.

Obviously, the above tips can only go so far. Many attorneys may require counseling or even medicinal therapy to get through this time. It must be said: there is no shame in asking for and seeking help. Fortunately, with the expansion of tele-medicine, one can now find a therapist or even a psychiatrist from the comfort of your own home. If you need to speak to a professional, do your research, find one, and set up an appointment even if it is via Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime. It is possible now to get treatment while social distancing thanks to video technology.

The good news is that there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel after six weeks of isolation. State governments are beginning to ease restrictions on businesses, and offices will surely follow suit as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, everyone – and especially legal professionals – should make conscious efforts to take care of their minds and bodies through self-care measures or through professional help.

Author: Bryan M. Grantham (Partner, Atlanta) Editor: S. Christopher Collier (Senior Partner, Atlanta)

Hawkins Parnell & Young's national litigation team is helping businesses across the United States navigate unprecedented legal challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center for the latest insights and guidance.