Prioritizing Mental Health At Work With A Different Kind of “Happy” Hour

Have an Employee Assistance Program? Check.

Have a policy explaining to employees that they can request reasonable accommodations for a physical or mental health disability and how to go about that? Check.

Trained your managers to recognize requests for accommodations? Check.

Talking with your teams about mental health? Communicating authentically about mental health in your workplace so that others feel psychologically safe to do the same?

Indeed, the pandemic ripped off the Band-Aid about that aspect of mental health. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) reported that almost 41% of US adults are struggling with their mental health or substance use, double pre-pandemic reports.

Results from one (pre-pandemic) study states that nearly 85% of people say they’re uncomfortable discussing mental illness at work, and NAMI estimates that 8 in 10 workers with a mental health condition do not get treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with it. If people aren’t seeking treatment and are uncomfortable talking about mental illness at work, they sure aren’t seeking reasonable accommodations either.

But talking about mental health struggles? Being so vulnerable? At work? That’s a tougher item to check off the list. Yet, it is so critical. Especially at a law firm.

Talking about mental health is a business necessity for lawyers. Lawyers have always been susceptible to higher rates of mental health challenges, such as depression, addiction, and suicide, compared to the general population.

If we talk about it, do we look weak? Will people still trust our judgment?

Enter “Happy” Hour.

At FisherBroyles, I open up a one hour video chat for any of my partners to talk about mental health. You see, here, at my firm, we walk the walk.

Since I joined FisherBroyles in 2016, I have been writing about how we manage and reframe mental health in the workplace.

Lawyers gotta lawyer so usually, I write in the context of managers who violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or fail to recognize requests for reasonable accommodations.

I write, too, about destigmatizing the whole idea of mental health as a “problem” and reframing it as a workplace challenge. We crave human interaction.

How could I do this at my cloud-based law firm where I do not just walk into my partners’ offices? It started with one person.

Flashback to 2019

We say often that leaders must lead by example. As I’ve written countless times in this blog, organizational leaders set the tone, and people tend to follow the leader.

When managers or the C-suite prioritizes mental health, employees or other partners are more likely to do so as well.

So in 2019 when Global General Counsel Joel Ferdinand explained to about 200 partners the ways in which he managed his anxiety, a seed planted in my brain.

FINALLY, I thought, people are talking about mental health.

What Is “Happy” Hour?

As Employment Counsel to this same law firm, I work daily with Joel and the rest of the leadership team. I know the statistics about mental health. I write about it. I live it in my family.

So I thought, as a leader at my firm, I want to create that same sense of psychological safety in my workplace through disclosure and share our mental health journeys and challenges together.

According to Joel, and he and I talk about this quite a bit:

Talking about anxiety, depression, or otherwise enables leaders to acknowledge what their team experiences, and allows them to be there for their team.  I truly care for our team, and treat them like family. However, to treat someone like family is to know them on a personal level, without which you do not know their experiences, stresses, or personal achievements. Knowing our team on a personal level enables me to check in often on more than a facial level, but, rather, on a personal level to ensure that they are healthy and happy human beings. 

When you mainstream mental health challenges and talk about it, it becomes less scary to people. We find solace in knowing we are not alone in our struggles and in our sleepless nights.

FisherBroyles Retreat September 2022

I started a monthly meeting for whomever wanted to join, and I have shared, and I have listened.

My law partner Justin Nahama thought of the name, and I loved the irony of it.

“Happy” hour is totally voluntary and, of course, confidential. Managers do not attend as managers. They attend as human beings.

We talk about stress and burnout.

Lawyers are stressed? Who knew?! According to the ABA Journal, lawyers responding to a Bloomberg Law survey reported feeling burnout an average of 47% of the time in the first half of the year.

The last quarter of 2021 was the first time average burnout exceeded 50% since the publication began polling on the issue in 2020.

The legal profession is demanding, and self-care has traditionally been undervalued. Legal employers need to continue to develop and offer well-being programs, and address attorney mental health and substance use disorders.

https://news.bloomberglaw.com/business-and-practice/analysis-attorney-burnout-abating-but-not-extinguished

Indeed.

During “Happy” Hour, we talk about the overwhelm, connecting with purpose, and know that it’s ok to ask for help. It’s not a weakness. It’s a human need.

We talk about breathing because I believe breathing is a critical tool in a self-care tool kit. And, yes, we talk a lot about prioritizing self-care through exercise, meditation, mindfulness, and taking the time for therapy if we need it. I’m barely scratching the surface, but you get the idea.

As lawyers, we think we are too busy to prioritize our mental health. Honestly, we cannot afford not to prioritize mental health.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.