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Writing a ‘mental health’ policy for your firm

Alcoholism, substance abuse and depression among attorneys usually receive the most attention at CLE programs and in publications.

This makes sense in light of the continuing (and alarming) rise in the numbers of individuals suffering from these impairments. But what we don’t hear enough about are the more subtle impairments that many people have: chronic workaholism; addiction to high tech tools; ongoing sleep deprivation; burnout; long-term excessive stress; etc.

Many people who think they don’t suffer from any addictions should think again about their attachment to their tech “tools.” Think back to your out-of-the-office hours last night or last weekend. How frequently did you check your mobile phone, Blackberry or PDA for messages? How many work-related text messages or e-mails did you send? How often do you check for messages while supposedly “listening” to others?

Acknowledging and taking steps to address mental health concerns can be very difficult for many people. Instead, they may resort to out-dated mindsets that push these types of problems under the rug as too embarrassing to be discussed or shared with others. Equally dangerous are people who have become masters of denial regarding their physical or mental well being. They tell themselves they can “handle” their addictions, chronic stress, etc. and refuse to see the ways their denial is hurting themselves, their work product, their clients and everyone who must live or work with them.

Set a policy

Is anyone in your office showing signs of an existing mental impairment or at high risk for developing an addiction? If so, what is being done to help them, to ensure that clients are not harmed and to protect other employees?

The first step is to make sure you have an up-to-date impairment policy for your office that makes clear what help is available, and how clients and other employees are to be protected.

An effective mental impairment policy includes many basic components. At a minimum, it should:

• Define the mental impairment issues that the policy addresses.

• Teach and explain the signs of mental impairment.

• Tell employees how to handle a situation when they suspect or know of a co-worker’s or a client’s addiction or problem.

• Outline how employees will be held accountable if they fail to report mental impairment incidents which could harm a client matter, another employee or do other damage.

• List what resources, if any, the firm offers to employees with mental impairment challenges along with information on local external resources.

• Address the firm’s confidentiality policy regarding these types of matters.

A written policy on mental impairment raises the awareness level of all employees, reflects the firm’s commitment to maintaining the highest level of legal services and ethics, acknowledges the firm’s intolerance for drug or alcohol abuse and the efforts and the resources it offers employees needing assistance. A well-thought-out policy that holds all employees accountable for complying with it makes clear your firm’s integrity and assures clients that the firm’s high standards will not be compromised.

It is also helpful for firm leaders to mandate annual vacation time for all employees each year and to set a good example of the importance of living balanced professional and personal lives. Offering stress management/quality of life/mental health opportunities at least twice a year for all employees is another approach that is well worth the cost, time and effort. The firm will benefit tremendously from providing this type of education to employees – higher productivity, fewer absences, reduced stress and improved morale are only a few of the pluses. In addition, your professional liability and medical insurance providers will applaud you and hopefully offer discounts for your efforts. (If not, check out their competition before applying for renewal of your policies.)

Getting help

The resources available for help with these matters are plentiful. From bar association programs to private therapists to online help and community outreach options, we have an endless number of resources from which to choose. A good place to start is with your local community, your state’s bar association and the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP). COLAP can be reached at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap/ or by calling 1-800-285-2221, ext. 5359. Also, ask other attorneys how they handle these issues and if they would share a copy of their firm’s impairment policy.

Too many of our colleagues suffer from the more serious mental health challenges. But each one of us is responsible for protecting ourselves, our employees and our great profession from the dangers of ignored mental health impairments. A great place to start is with the creation and implementation of a well-thought-out firm policy on mental health impairment. Equally essential is that we all take an honest, complete look in the mirror and that we get busy “fixin” whatever needs attention in our own lives and lifestyles.

Former practicing lawyer Nancy Byerly Jones is a regular contributor to Lawyers USA. She enjoys her work as an office management solutions consultant/coach for attorneys and staff and as a family law and business disputes mediator. For more information, please visit her website at www.nbjconsulting.com. To suggest topic ideas for this column, please e-mail Nancy at: nbj@nbjconsulting.com or call her at 828/264-1448.