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Law Practice Magazine


The Intersection of Wellness and Leadership

Jessie Spressart


  • Over the last two years, law firm leaders have needed to be nimble, resilient and steadfast in a world that changed abruptly.
  • Leading your firm through these times of continued change and readjustment requires resilience and determination.
  • Taking action to instill a culture of well-being in your organization takes time and attention and may be daunting. However, not doing so will be detrimental in the long run.
The Intersection of Wellness and Leadership de la Hoz

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Over the last two years, law firm leaders have needed to be nimble, resilient and steadfast in a world that changed abruptly. As we continue to emerge into successive iterations of a new normal, it is essential to recognize that the pandemic has taken a significant toll on our well-being. Your organizations have undergone significant shifts, and your practices and personal lives have sustained a level of uncertainty and stress, all but guaranteeing that we will never fully go back to the way things were. Your life has changed—how has your leadership?

Experts warn that we are at the beginning of an unprecedented mental health crisis that will unfold over the coming months and years. Leaders cannot ignore the effects from months of lockdown, social unrest, remote work and ambiguity around returning to the office. Leaders need to understand how crucial well-being is to the continued success and vitality of their organizations, and must recognize that taking action to inculcate a culture of well-being is essential to their role. Below, we will discuss the intersection of leadership and well-being on three levels: for your overall organization, for the individuals who make up that organization and for yourself as a leader.

Organizational Well-Being

Studies show that implementing holistic well-being initiatives is beneficial in many ways. Organizations that intentionally focus on well-being realize several benefits. First, employees have increased morale and engagement. As a result, there are lower turnover and attrition rates, with the benefit of lower costs associated with on- and off-boarding new employees. Organizations that focus on well-being also have fewer instances of both absenteeism (missing work entirely) and presenteeism (being at work despite disengagement, illness or injury, leading to reduced performance). Finally, focusing on well-being results in lower costs for health care due to lower instances of stress-related illnesses.

While many legal organizations have launched well-being initiatives, the fact remains that these initiatives are often perceived as cursory efforts to check the box on wellness. To understand the importance of well-being for organizations, we first must expand its definition to include not only areas like diet, exercise, healthy habits and sleep (what typically is encompassed by the term “well-ness”), but also the broader dimensions of emotional and mental health, social connection and the need for meaning and purpose. When well-being initiatives encourage healthy behaviors on multiple levels, they can be transformative for the whole organization.

Once we expand the definition of well-being, we must also understand that a healthy organization intentionally integrates well-being into its business objectives. Leaders of healthy organizations know that any well-being initiative that does not permeate the organization will fail. Well-being must be incorporated into all aspects of your firm or business, from business development to client service, as well as to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, professional development and HR practices.

Healthy organizations are also spaces where everyone can be their authentic selves and where a sense of belonging is fostered and encouraged. Leaders who excel at integrating well-being into their organization foster psychological safety across all levels. Psychological safety describes the condition in which people feel included, where it is safe to learn, contribute and challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way. While the concept reaches back to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the importance of psychological safety in organizations and its positive impact on well-being, individual and team performance and business outcomes has become more apparent in the last several years. Paula Davis’ recent book, Beating Burnout at Work, discusses psychological safety in detail and outlines several leader behaviors that help build it.

Well-Being for Individuals in Your Organization

Well-being is linked to self-determination, an important psychological concept that refers to the ability of people to make choices, manage their lives and feel that they have control over their choices and lives. Engaged individuals have higher levels of well-being and are those who possess the three key elements of self-determination:

  1. Autonomy, or the sense that one has some choice as to how they will go about their day and execute on tasks and projects.
  2. Competence, or the ability to set and achieve goals that allow growth and mastery.
  3. Connectedness, or the sense that one belongs to the space they are in and can interact authentically with others. Leaders can support individuals and encourage these aspects of self-determination in individuals by allowing team members to be active in their own development, providing meaningful feedback, and offering support and encouragement. When the individuals who make up your organization—whether attorneys, business professionals or support staff—feel supported by leadership, morale and engagement inevitably increase. Healthy, energetic and focused people are both more effective and more engaged than those who are tired, stressed and distracted.

However, the pandemic has taken a toll, and mental health issues and burnout have increased significantly. When individuals must manage these challenges, it can be much more difficult (if not impossible) for them to be fully engaged in work.

Mental health is a difficult area for many leaders. It is uncomfortable to talk about, and a heavy stigma surrounds discussions of mental health. Many individuals are hesitant to bring it up at all, much less disclose that they are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. In light of research showing that attorneys and other legal professionals’ mental health has suffered since the start of the pandemic, leaders who become part of the effort to destigmatize mental health challenges will contribute to a more open culture where people can be themselves.

Burnout is another syndrome that has risen to prominence in the wake of the pandemic. Far from being the same thing as “general stress,” burnout is characterized by chronic exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job and lowered efficacy, leading to (or increasing) anxiety, depression, substance use and other mental health issues. The shift to remote work (and back again to the office in many instances) has exacerbated the experiences of many who suffer from burnout and has caused many more to experience it for the first time. Leaders should educate themselves about burnout, its causes and its symptoms.

What can leaders do? In addition to understanding the challenges around mental health issues and burnout, and taking action to address both, leaders must be proactive about building strong, trust-based relationships with others at all levels of their firms. There is a link between individual engagement and well-being—and leaders are an essential part of the connection between the two. There is a positive association between high-quality, reciprocal relationships between employees and leaders with whom they work and employee well-being. Essentially, when it is clear that leaders care about the well-being of individuals in the organization, and when leaders do more than just say they care but show it through their leadership practices, everyone benefits.

The Importance of Self-Care

If it has been a while since you were on a plane, let me remind you that the pre-flight instructions tell us to put our own oxygen masks on first before assisting others. As a leader, making sure that you have attended to your own needs is essential. In addition to setting a good example for others, developing a self-care practice to support your own well-being will enable you to be more present, resilient and effective in your role. Be sure to have a solid support system—friends, family and a coach whom you can rely on as resources to help you out when needed.

It is not enough to tell others that they should take care of themselves. Leaders and leadership should demonstrate their commitment to well-being since a “do as I say, not as I do” scenario undermines a leader’s position of authenticity and can lead employees to be skeptical of leadership’s commitment to well-being.

Walking the walk may include setting boundaries around work hours and being clear about expectations for response times during weekends and vacations. It definitely means taking time off to disconnect, rest and recuperate. It also means learning how to share your own struggles with stress and anxiety, which can go a long way toward building trust when others see that they are not alone.

Fostering a Well-Being Culture

There’s a popular saying: “Managers do things right, and leaders do the right things.” Here are three suggestions for what to do (and one for what not to do) to foster a culture of well-being.

DO: Develop and practice skills like empathy, compassion and self-compassion.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of others’ experiences and understand how others feel (cognitive empathy). Empathy can also be the experience of “feeling others’ pain” (emotional empathy). Empathy is an essential element for leaders to develop, and it’s also important to be aware that empathy can be difficult to maintain when you are under stress or experiencing burnout yourself.

Compassion takes empathy one step further: It responds to someone else’s experience, which creates a desire to help, but compassion has an element of emotional distance from the individual and the situation, which allows leaders to maintain their own well-being while caring for the well-being of others. Self-compassion is also essential for leaders, particularly during times of increased stress—it means treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a difficult time. All too often, leaders are too hard on themselves, and practicing self-compassion can lead to increased well-being both at work and outside of it.

DO: Make mental health as much of a priority as physical health in your organization.

Consider training people at all levels—attorneys, business professionals and support staff—in Mental Health First Aid, a skills-based training course that teaches about mental health and substance-use issues and enables people to recognize risk factors, signs and symptoms of mental health and addiction concerns, as well as strategies for how to help people experiencing mental health issues. Studies show that knowing Mental Health First Aid helps reduce the stigma around mental health issues and empowers people to help others.

DO: Incorporate well-being into planning and feedback processes.

Ensuring that well-being has a place in associate and staff evaluations can be game-changing, both for evaluators and those receiving the review. If you use competencies, consider how to incorporate well-being into them. If your firm has a formal individual development plan process, expand the process to include a self-care plan and intentionally link self-care to goal-setting and achieving. As a leader, remember to ask others, even on an informal basis, “How are you doing?” and, “Is there a way I can support you and your well-being?” and then act on the feedback you receive.

DON’T: Assume everyone has access to the same resources or that well-being will look the same for everyone.

Equitable access to well-being resources, offerings and benefits is essential. Be aware of implicit and unconscious biases regarding well-being initiatives and eliminate them where they arise. One way to promote equity is to involve individuals in selecting, designing and implementing well-being offerings. This will help ensure that appropriate programs and options are made available. Furthermore, including individuals in the process creates a sense of ownership, which in turn reflects and fosters a culture of well-being.

Leading your firm through these times of continued change and readjustment requires resilience and determination. Taking action to instill a culture of well-being in your organization takes time and attention and may be daunting. However, not doing so will be detrimental in the long run. Take small, meaningful steps to enhance well-being, and they will add up to significant, impactful transformation.