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 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.

Working Notes: On music as a feel-good pill, advice for wellness programs, and a dignity studies learning collaboration

Dear readers, I thought I’d lead us into the weekend with three items of possible interest:

The wonder of music

Have you ever wondered why music often provides an emotional pick-me-up? Well, it can trigger the release of dopamine, an organic chemical that helps to control our brain’s pleasure centers. For more, here’s a neat little YouTube find from 2012, written and produced by Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, perfect for a Friday afternoon posting:

Is music humanity’s drug of choice? What is the mysterious power behind it’s ability to captivate, stimulate and keep us coming back for more? Find out the scientific explanation of how a simple mixture of sound frequencies can affect your brain and body, and why it’s not all that different than a drug like cocaine.

You may click and watch above! And if you’ve had one of these weeks at work, then maybe the right kind of music will give you a lift!

Cautionary advice on implementing workplace wellness programs

Kathryn R. Klement and Larissa K. Barber, writing for the American Psychological Association’s Good Company newsletter, acknowledge that “employee wellness programming can be effective for increasing job satisfaction and reducing absenteeism,” as well potentially reduce health care costs. However, they aptly warn against the possible downsides of wellness programs, especially the mandatory variety:

  • “First, some forms of wellness programming can increase perceptions of injustice, which can also increase workplace stress.”
  • “Second, wellness programs can unintentionally marginalize certain groups of employees, such as those with chronic health conditions, employees with a lower socioeconomic status and employees with disabilities.”
  • “Third, these programs can provide inaccurate information about health to employees, relying on incorrect measures of health and wellness.”

In their excellent article, they “discuss each of these potential pitfalls” in greater depth and offer “five recommendations for effective wellness programming.” HR offices, unions, and other employee relations stakeholders will find this useful.

An exciting dignity studies degree program collaboration

Two entities for which I have great affection and regard, the World Dignity University (WDU) initiative of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network, and the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), are entering into a collaboration that will allow students to pursue a multidisciplinary, flexible learning WISR graduate degree with a Dignity Studies specialization.

The World Dignity University is an evolving project of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, which I have discussed on many occasions here, including my last post. The Western Institute for Social Research is a small, independent university located in Berkeley, California, that offers degree programs for individuals interested in community service and social change. I serve on the boards of both organizations, and I have been delighted to help facilitate this collaboration.

A WISR degree is based largely on multidisciplinary readings, learning projects, and a thesis or dissertation. For the Dignity Studies specialization, students will be working with faculty drawn from WISR’s core faculty and from the WDU and HumanDHS communities to serve as adjunct WISR faculty for this purpose. Three current WISR graduate degree programs are eligible for this “Dignity Studies” specialization:

  • M.S. in Community Leadership and Justice
  • M.S. in Education
  • Ed.D. in Higher Education and Social Change

All three programs have a small number of required courses, each of which has some required readings, but primarily involves learner-defined action and/or research projects culminating in papers related to the student’s purposes and interests. Students pursuing a Dignity Studies specialization would take a 5-credit course, “Dignity Studies,” as part of their required courses.

Founded in 1975, WISR operates under full California state approval. Historically it has been too small (with enrollment typically averaging in the low to mid dozens of students) to be considered for traditional accreditation, though efforts are underway to seek accreditation with a national agency. Thus, WISR degrees are most useful and valuable for those who want to do intensive, independent work on areas of interest with a social change theme that will complement their current professional position and/or involve community and adult learning.

For more information, please contact WISR President, Dr. John Bilorusky, directly at: johnb@wisr.edu.

Worker safety and gun violence in the academic workplace

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During the past two weeks, shootings resulting in multiple fatalities and severe injuries at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have caused understandable alarm at many institutions of higher education. Recent entries in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s campus safety link read like a horrible crime blotter:

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Not surprisingly, many who work in colleges and universities are asking, what if it happens here? Do we know what to do? The answer, apparently, is that levels of readiness vary widely. Here’s a brief excerpt of an Associated Press examination of training and protocols for on-campus gun incidents at public universities in over 40 states, reported by Lisa Leff and Ryan J. Foley:

At some institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines and Arkansas State University, training on how to respond to an armed intruder has become as much a part of fall orientation as lessons on alcohol abuse. Students hear presentations covering their options, such as running, hiding or fighting back.

Other schools have purely voluntary training. Or they put information on what to do in an emergency on websites, where it can easily be overlooked by students and staff members. Many public college and university systems leave it up to their individual campuses to draw up emergency plans and decide what level of training, if any, to give employees and students.

Overall, those employed in higher education settings have reason to be concerned about the safety of their work environments. True, the statistical probability of gun violence will likely continue to pale to that of other safety risks in higher education settings. But we should not be surprised when more shootings occur. The reasons for this are many and intertwined, including America’s gun culture, mental health concerns, and the stressors present on our college campuses.

Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.

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From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?

 

Six points on the NY Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices

 

Last Sunday’s New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s white-collar work practices has been stirring up a lot of discussion, and if you’re at all interested in the experience of work in today’s digital age, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with it.

Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld tell a story of a highly pressurized, survival-of-the-fittest work environment, based on over 100 interviews with current and former Amazon employees:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

It is a culture driven by data, customer preference, and a single-minded devotion to company success. The article suggests that even serious personal circumstances are no excuse:

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

It’s a piece that digs deep into the culture of Amazon and the management philosophy of its founder and leader Jeff Bezos.

The Times article has triggered an avalanche of commentary on the Internet, especially among news and commentary sites that one might deem moderate to liberal in their orientation or that frequently cover the high tech industry. The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesSlateSalonThe Guardian, and Vox are among the countless sites that have weighed in — sometimes thoughtfully, other times more predictably.

It also prompted a response from Jeff Bezos (which I’ll discuss below) and a heavily read defense of Amazon by a current employee posted to LinkedIn.

While recognizing that this is a discussion-in-progress, I’d like to share six points that I’ve mustered about the Times Amazon story and its aftermath.

Observation No. 1: It’s too early to tell if this is a “tipping point” journalistic event

Is this the Big Story that gets us to look more critically about the experience of white-collar work in America? Judging from the mega-clouds of Internet commentary, one is tempted to say absolutely yes. But let’s return to this question in a year or two for an accurate answer.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that this is a trending water cooler topic in many large organizations. Surely the Times article and related pieces will offer fodder for many, many class discussions in business schools, especially management, leadership, human resources, and business ethics courses.

Observation No. 2: Jeff Bezos’s response speaks volumes

Not surprisingly, Bezos has strongly denied the characterizations of Amazon’s work environment and practices reported in the Times article. In a follow-up piece, Streitfeld and Kantor reported that Bezos:

deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

So here are the main possibilities:

  1. The Times got the original story very, very wrong;
  2. Bezos is being disingenuous;
  3. Bezos is simply on another planet when it comes to management philosophy, and/or,
  4. Bezos doesn’t know about employee practices and policies in his own company.

Could the Times have blown it? It’s highly doubtful. This investigation covered a ton of ground. The reporters also requested an interview with Bezos, which was refused by Amazon.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of items 2, 3, and 4.

Very revealing to me is what Bezos shared with his workers. Streitfeld and Kantor further reported on a memo that Bezos circulated to Amazon’s employees:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

Translation: We have zero tolerance for lack of empathy. Please drop a dime on anyone who falls short on this measure so we can purge them.

Yikes.

Observation No. 3: Meanwhile, back at the warehouse…

The enormous response to the Times story suggests that our economic class biases are showing. Allegations of terrible working conditions and low wages for Amazon’s warehouse workers have been surfacing for years, yielding nothing like the current outcry.

Last year, in a piece explaining why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, I highlighted a Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” which detailed the warehouse working environments:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

Observation No. 4: We (or at least many of us) are complicit as customers

As some of these commentaries are recognizing, consumer demand for nearly instant gratification is fueling Amazon’s workplace practices. Amazon’s regard for its own employees may be questionable, but it gives customer service the highest priority. (A search for surveys on “best customer service” will verify this.)

However, that very consumer demand is feeding Amazon’s all-consuming workplace culture. Here is how I explained my decision to cancel my Prime account last year:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses.

. . . Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

Observation No. 5: Amazon’s workplace practices highlight the fault line between extremely hard driving management and bullying

The theme of workplace bullying does not manifest itself in either the Times article or much of the resulting commentary. Instead, the focus is on a management style and organizational culture that demands complete commitment and hyper-competition.

That said, assuming accounts of the company’s responses to severe employee health conditions are accurate, then Amazon has a remarkable empathy deficit. The intentions may be all about notions of “excellence,” but the practices reveal, well, an out-of-control sense of control over workers’ lives and well being.

Observation No. 6: Newspapers and their reporters still matter

This is why (among other reasons) we still need newspapers and investigative reporters who are capable of carrying out lengthy investigations and then reporting their findings in detail.

Most Internet news/commentary sites cannot do this. They may break a story now and then, but not one requiring this level of background work. The abundance of current online commentary on Amazon’s work practices was enabled by the spadework done by Times reporters Kantor and Streitfeld and their colleagues.

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This column makes me the latest among the stampede of commentators on this story. I hope it has provided some useful food for thought.

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