According to the most recent State of the American Workplace study by Gallup, nearly 70 percent of workers are disengaged to some extent.1 Law firms and organizations need lawyers and other employees who are engaged, can think critically, develop business, and solve problems based on the way clients live and work today. Those capabilities are even more important given the changing nature of the legal profession.
Consequences of Stress, Challenge, and Change
Change has psychological and behavioral consequences:2 1) cognitive narrowing (you are able to process less information at peak capacity); 2) constriction (tightening) of control; and 3) conservation of resources.
The result is a rigid, inflexible response to stress, change, and adversity. This leads to the following: more errors and missed information and deadlines; developing a protect-my-turf mentality and becoming less of a team player and more uncooperative; more incivility and less collegiality; and survival-based emotions like impatience, defensiveness, and hypercritical feelings.
Developing Resilient Law Firms and Organizations
Developing resilient organizations makes business sense. When lawyers are disengaged and lack the resilience to withstand consistent challenge and pressure, productivity goes down, turnover goes up, billable hours and profits shrink, and the bottom line is affected.
Resilient organizations operate differently from less resilient firms in four key ways:3
They develop excess capacity, which allows them to survive if one area of the organization fails.
They are robust in that they promote the psychological health of their employees.
They are flexible and are willing to try new approaches rather than relying on standard operating procedure.
They support a culture of respect and trust.
Developing Resilient Lawyers and Law Students
Many lawyers and law students struggle to thrive, and the loss of personal well-being for many lawyers starts in law school. Research shows that before law school, future law students are as emotionally healthy as the general population; however, just six months into law school, levels of well-being crash and anxiety and depression levels increase dramatically.4 Lawyers and law students also have significantly higher levels of stress, stress symptoms, alcohol abuse, social isolation, and marital dissatisfaction.5
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress and Resilience Institute, an organization that educates attorneys and professionals about how to better manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. She is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
See Paula’s article on coping with life’s curveballs on page 97 in the April issues of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Occupational stress has been shown to be significantly associated with both personal and work-related burnout among lawyers.6 A study of Wisconsin public defenders found that 37.4 percent of them scored in the clinically significant range of burnout.7 Public service lawyers experiencing burnout were found to be less committed to the organization, reported lower identification with organizational goals, and were less willing to exert effort to achieve those goals.8
Resilience helps to mitigate and even prevent some of the stressors outlined above. Resilience is built through a set of core competencies that enable mental toughness and mental strength, optimal performance, strong leadership, and tenacity (resilient people give up less frequently when they experience setbacks). Resilience is both a source and a result of efficacy and mastery.9
Resilience rests on at least two building blocks: 1) Resilience is more likely when individuals have access to sufficient quality resources (for example, social, emotional, human, and material resources); and 2) resilience is more likely when an individual’s mastery motivation system is mobilized. Individuals must have experiences that allow them to both build self-efficacy and motivate them to succeed in future endeavors.10
Other important components of resilience are represented by the acronym FOCUS:11
F: Flexible, accurate, and thorough thinking – what is often referred to as “mental toughness;”
O: Other people matter – developing high-quality relationships with others;
C: Connecting to something bigger – having sources of meaning, purpose, and engagement (when a lawyer gets a new assignment, does he or she know the “why?”);
U: Utilize and incorporate positive emotion and empathy; and
S: Self-building skills, which include self-efficacy (mentioned above), self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-care.
All these resilience components can be learned, practiced, developed, and improved using empirically based strategies and tools.
The Benefits of a Resilience Approach
Resilience doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be successful in every situation, but your capacity for recovery will be greatly increased such that you shift into adaptive behavior much more quickly when you encounter stress or a challenge.
The benefits of teaching lawyers and law students resilience skills to help them manage challenges, change, and stress are many:12
When lawyers are more resilient, they can tolerate change, stress, uncertainty, and other types of adversity more effectively than do low-resilience lawyers. They have developed healthy coping strategies and are therefore more likely to mitigate the effects of stress and adversity.
They have more self-efficacy, meaning they believe that they can produce results in their life. They have a sense of agency, are able to develop more of a “growth mindset,” and believe that problems can be solved as a result of their own efforts. This helps to buffer against developing a “giving up” mentality and learned helplessness.
They more easily promote the development and maintenance of high-quality relationships and they draw on these connections when they need help coping with stressful life events.
For more than three years, I had the privilege of teaching and training resilience skills to drill sergeants, noncommissioned officers, officers, and their spouses as part of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program (CSF2).13 CSF2 is the Army’s program to provide all Army community members with the psychological resources and skills to cope with stress and adversity and thrive in their lives. CSF2 has been able to scientifically validate the effectiveness of resilience training for its soldiers, and here are some of the reported outcomes:14
Soldiers who received resilience training improved as soldiers, both personally and professionally, more than soldiers who did not receive the training.
Units with resilience trainers had significantly lower rates of substance abuse diagnoses and diagnoses for mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety (in some cases the reduction in these diagnoses was as high as 60 percent).
CSF2 continues to roll out its resilience training course for spouses and has developed two additional resilience training courses – an executive course for high-ranking soldiers and a course for teens.
Many of the skills in the Army’s resilience training course were adapted from the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP). The PRP, a resilience skills program developed by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and initially provided to adolescents, has an extensive research and clinical literature supporting its efficacy. At least 17 controlled studies have evaluated the PRP, and although some inconsistent findings have been reported, the studies suggest that the PRP significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and helped participants perform better. In the studies that included long-term follow-ups, PRP resilience skill effects were found to last for two years or more.15
Finally, the mental toughness component of resilience, in particular, has been shown in a number of studies to help prevent and alleviate burnout.16
Challenge and change are here to stay, and stress is not going away. Building the resilience of your organization and the lawyers and other professionals in it makes good business sense.