Lawyers, alcohol abuse, and depression: Why we need a healthier legal profession and more humane legal systems

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Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports on a major study by the American Society of Addiction Medicine documenting high levels of alcohol abuse and depression among lawyers:

America’s lawyers have a serious drinking problem, according to a new report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

More than 20 percent of licensed attorneys drink at levels that are considered “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent.” That’s three times higher than the rate of problem drinking among the general public.

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The study also found a shockingly high rate of depression — 28 percent — among American lawyers. Among the general public, only 8 percent experience a bout of depression in a given year, according to the CDC.

Ingraham quotes the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, on the possible reasons behind these high rates of alcohol abuse. According to Krill, law school teaches budding lawyers “to work harder, play harder, and assume the role of a tough, capable and aggressive professional without personal weaknesses or deficiencies.” They then enter a field where “(h)eavy drinking, lack of balance and poor self-care are entirely normalized . . . .”

Of course, concerns about excessive alcohol consumption by lawyers are nothing new. Some professions have become associated with the term “hard drinking,” and the legal profession is among them. The tag is sometimes worn as a twisted badge of pride and becomes reflected in our popular culture. For example, Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “The Verdict,” a 1982 drama that pitted an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Boston lawyer against the Forces That Be in a major medical malpractice case. Unfortunately, the reality of this state of affairs is much sadder for lawyers and clients alike.

The underplayed findings

The ASAM study has been getting a lot of press, with headlines centered on the excessive alcohol use. However, often buried under the lede are the data concerning high levels of depression. In a piece on alcohol and depression, WebMD discusses the connections between the two. While alcohol abuse can lead to depression, oftentimes depression can fuel excessive drinking: “Nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem. Often, the depression comes first.”

Regardless of whether depression triggers alcohol abuse or the other way around, the high prevalence rates of depression cited in the study carry major implications for lawyers, legal systems, clients, and parties to legal disputes, encompassing the wellness of the legal profession and the quality of legal work provided to clients and shaping the law.

Therapeutic jurisprudence: Part of the solution

Obviously a problem crisis this significant calls for multifaceted responses. May I suggest that therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the school of legal thought and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic qualities of legal systems, legal practice, and law and policy, is part of the solution. TJ favors psychologically healthy outcomes for legal transactions and disputes, with laws and legal processes designed — at least in part — to foster such results.

In too many settings, the practice of law has become psychologically unhealthy, a stark contrast to the ideals that drew many to law school in the first place. The economic downturn has had a lot to do with this, but the core problems existed well before the Great Recession. Add to that the deeply adversarial nature of negotiation and litigation and you’ve got a pretty toxic brew.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is not a panacea, but it offers a hopeful alternative to the dominant status quo. I’ve written a lot about TJ for this blog, and here are some representative posts:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

The angry man vs. the angry woman: A double standard of influence?

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Do angry women have less influence in group settings than angry men?

In a research article titled “One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation” (Law and Human Behavior, 2015), Jessica M. Salerno (Arizona St. U.) and Liana C. Peter-Hagene (Illinois-Chicago) offer some insights on that question. Their experiment set up a mock jury deliberation that allowed them to compare the influence of male jurors vs. the influence of female jurors. They found that when male jurors expressed anger, they gained greater influence over the group. However, when female jurors expressed anger, they lost influence over the group.

Here’s the abstract of their article (subscription needed to access the full piece):

ABSTRACT We investigated whether expressing anger increases social influence for men, but diminishes social influence for women, during group deliberation. In a deception paradigm, participants believed they were engaged in a computer-mediated mock jury deliberation about a murder case. In actuality, the interaction was scripted. The script included 5 other mock jurors who provided verdicts and comments in support of the verdicts; 4 agreed with the participant and 1 was a “holdout” dissenter. Holdouts expressed their opinions with no emotion, anger, or fear and had either male or female names. Holdouts exerted no influence on participants’ opinions when they expressed no emotion or fear. Participants’ confidence in their own verdict dropped significantly, however, after male holdouts expressed anger. Yet, anger expression undermined female holdouts: Participants became significantly more confident in their original verdicts after female holdouts expressed anger-even though they were expressing the exact same opinion and emotion as the male holdouts. Mediation analyses revealed that participants drew different inferences from male versus female anger, which created a gender gap in influence during group deliberation. The current study has implications for group decisions in general, and jury deliberations in particular, by suggesting that expressing anger might lead men to gain influence, but women to lose influence over others (even when making identical arguments). These diverging consequences might result in women potentially having less influence on societally important decisions than men, such as jury verdicts.

The authors note that their research carries implications for other group settings as well, including the workplace. For years many have suggested that a cultural double standard exists at work: The angry man is regarded as being earnest and worth taking seriously when in this state of emotion. After all, that anger must come from deep conviction, yes? But the angry woman is more likely to be regarded as being unpleasant, overly emotional, perhaps even hysteric. And maybe some are thinking, what a b***h

Last week I told students in my Employment Discrimination class that women in the professional workplace have to be much more self-aware of how their behavior is perceived than do men. It isn’t fair or right that they must carry that burden. But this little experiment helps to buttress why women often must walk a finer line in monitoring their own behavior on the job.

The uses and limitations of “fight or flight” when dealing with bullying situations

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In Daring Greatly (2012), Dr. Brené Brown offers a statement (among many in this excellent book) that speaks volumes:

Our fight or flight strategies are effective for survival, not for reasoning or connection.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. I’ve seized upon this one line because it’s so relevant to targets of bullying in our workplaces, schools, and communities.

The fight or flight response is a normal one when we’re facing immediate threats to our safety, security, and well-being. Such threats trigger the release of stress hormones that prepare us for the challenge ahead. We are put on high alert.

However, as Dr. Brown suggests, fight or flight mode is not good for engaging in reasoning or connection. Instincts can trump reasoning, and a defensive posture undermines connection. Thus, when we’re confronted by bullying behaviors, we may also be prone to making quick, bad decisions and to pushing away or avoiding others who may offer support.

Because I am not trained as a psychologist or therapist, I’m not going to suggest a counseling protocol for bridging the gap between fight or flight on one end, and reasoning and connection on the other. However, I hope that this little insight via Brené Brown helps us to understand why people in bullying situations sometimes react as they do.

“Cleaning house”: Is there (sometimes) a better way?

(Image courtesy of cliparts.co)

(Image courtesy of cliparts.co)

“It’s time to clean house.” “We’ve really got to do some house cleaning here.” “It’s time to back up the truck and clean out that house.”

How many times have we heard these phrases invoked in the context of organizations and work life? How many times have we used these phrases ourselves in the midst of expressing our exasperation over work situations that seemingly call for tossing out a bunch of current employees and replacing them with an influx of new people, presumably the “right ones” to help stage a turnaround?

But think about how those on the receiving end of the “let’s clean house” message feel: Threatened, defensive, disrespected, and vulnerable. This includes not only the low performers, but also a lot of the solid and outstanding performers as well. Granted, at times, wholesale changes are necessary, especially if the leadership team is severely lacking. However, the house cleaning theme may cause some of the best folks in the building to look for greener pastures.

Maybe there’s a better way. In his book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), coach and therapist Bruce Schneider builds a case study around his work with the CEO of a small company on the brink of extinction. This CEO came to realize that he had to change his ways, which included working more interactively and inclusively with his current workers, rather than pushing all of them out. As a result, the CEO revived his company and only one incumbent employee departed, after efforts to make that relationship work didn’t pan out.

It takes quality leadership to understand when wholesale changes are necessary versus when the keys to success are already in place, awaiting a better approach. At the very least, when we hear a manager or executive declaring that it’s time to clean house, it’s useful to dig beneath the surface and ask if this is the right way to go.

Energy-Leadership

The deadly cost of ignoring warnings from subordinates: The 1986 Challenger disaster

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The night before the ill-fated launch of the Challenger spaceship in January 1986, project engineer Bob Ebeling and four colleagues pleaded with NASA and other higher ups to delay the mission. The reason? They believed that with the cold weather facing the launch, the Challenger was likely to blow up because its rubber seals wouldn’t hold up under lower temperatures.

Tragically, their concerns went unheeded, and seven brave astronauts died while their family members, friends, colleagues, and a national audience watched the horror unfold.

On this 30th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, Ebeling was interviewed by NPR’s Howard Berkes about what happened:

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

It breaks my heart that Ebeling blames himself for what happened, when he and his colleagues had the courage to speak up despite all the public anticipation of this launch.

This also serves as a terrible reminder of what can happen when high-level managers and executives disregard the urgent concerns of knowledgeable subordinates. In this case, lives were at stake. Had NASA officials listened to the five engineers, those astronauts would not have perished on that day.

Fear of retaliation: A prime indicator of organizational integrity and decency

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There are plenty of factors that go into what makes a good workplace, but I’d like to zero in on one measure: Do employees have reason to fear retaliation if they report alleged wrongdoings, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, or ethical transgressions, or if they engage in legally protected activities such as union organizing?

The answer to this question speaks volumes about an organization’s integrity and decency. It all boils down pretty clearly: The good organizations don’t retaliate against individuals for engaging in legally protected conduct or for reporting potentially illegal or wrongful behaviors. The bad ones do.

Retaliation can take many forms, including:

  • Active, targeted, threatening, and prompt retaliation via overt and covert means;
  • Milder, usually indirect retaliation that makes it more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship;
  • Taking a wait-and-see approach by watching the employee for the slightest mistake or transgression, and then blowing it up into a major performance weakness or act of misconduct;
  • Icing out the employee from various opportunities, while building elaborate, pretextual justifications for doing so; and,
  • Retaliating against the employee’s compatriots or friends.

Most protective employment statutes, such as discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and health & safety laws, have anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect those who report alleged violations and who cooperate with related investigations and legal proceedings. But prevailing on such claims is not easy, and the nastier the employer, the more likely it is to have raised hiding its motives to an art form.

A lot of retaliation takes the form of workplace bullying. However, establishing motive and causation under anti-retaliation provisions of various laws can be a challenge. It’s among the reasons why we need standalone legal protections against workplace bullying.

Freedom from fear is an important element of dignity at work. Praise be to organizations that truly practice this value.

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The article in the screenshot above is just one of an endless number of pieces online about fear of retaliation for whistleblowing and asserting one’s legal rights.

Beware the workplace chameleon

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

Being able to adapt, change, and sometimes go with the flow can be a good trait to possess. After all, change is the only constant, right? Even Charles Darwin would tell us that species either adapt to the demands of their environments or disappear.

And so it goes at work, too. If we want to be good at our jobs, we must be able to deal with change. That includes dealing with a new boss or supervisor.

But what about that species of co-worker who is so able to turn her colors that she cannot be trusted? You know, the one who is so committed to surviving or getting ahead that she becomes a workplace chameleon, able to change hues in an instant.

I searched the term and didn’t find much out there. I did pull a 2001 CNN piece by Amy Erickson that referred to “(t)hose slippery workplace chameleons who seem to change and adapt their behavior for each boss, manager or situation.” The article cited to a study claiming that workplace chameleons don’t get ahead as often as we might think.

Regardless of whether they get ahead or simply stay around, workplace chameleons can do a lot of damage to others. Above all, they are in it solely for themselves. Many a workplace chameleon can morph into someone truly dangerous. Taking orders from above or cues from co-workers, this creature may engage in destructive and hurtful behaviors.

When acting at the behest of a toxic or bullying boss, the chameleon may claim that he is only “following orders.” However, he also may internalize some of that malicious energy and act accordingly. If new management arrives with (hopefully) a better set of ethics and morals, the chameleon may revert back to being a decent human being, especially if there’s something in it for him.

It’s not easy to spot a workplace chameleon, but once you see him change colors in ways that hurt others, you won’t forget him. Hopefully you will have kept a sufficient distance so as not to have been directly impacted by that transformation.

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