California Lawyers Association

The Events of 2020 Have Changed Our Collective Mental Health—and Risk—Profile

By Patrick R. Krill

In the latest season of Netflix’s intensely entertaining hit Ozark, Jason Bateman’s character, Marty Byrde, is kidnapped by the Navarro drug cartel and taken to Mexico, where he is tortured and beaten for several days before ultimately being allowed to return home to Missouri, and his family. Upon his return, his brother-in-law Ben notes that the ordeal seems to have changed Marty in profound yet barely detectable ways, keenly observing “that looks like Marty, walks like Marty, sounds like Marty, but that is 100% not Marty Byrde.”

If something about that description feels oddly resonant or intimately familiar to you these days, you are not alone. As 2020 continues to grind on with a relentless parade of distressing events, the question now is how many more Marty Byrdes are there among us, outwardly presenting as the same person but knowing inside that they feel very different and, in many cases, quite a bit worse than when the year began.

Although pandemics, quarantines, economic upheaval and racial turmoil aren’t exactly the same as being dragged away with a sack over your head, thrown into a dungeon, starved, deprived of sleep, and then violently pummeled, a lot of people you know might say that feels like a distinction without a difference. In many ways, they may be right.

In a prior column published at the height of the pandemic-related lockdowns, I advised law firms and other employers that they should directly and unambiguously acknowledge the heavy emotional toll that 2020 was taking on their people if they wanted to minimize emotional dissonance, which is the inner conflict that arises between the way someone actually feels inside and the way they have to behave in order to conform to workplace norms.

Now, as we emerge from lockdowns and move towards some level of reopening and prior functionality, the dimensions of what that heavy emotional toll looks like in practical terms are coming into relief. Simply put, as I’ve been explaining to my law firm clients, the workforce you sent home several months ago is not the same workforce that will be returning. And I’m not referring to headcount.

Over the last several months, our society’s baseline and composite mental health profile has shifted significantly, and for the worse. Along with it, an employer’s risk profile has shifted as well. According to new census bureau statistics, a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, the clearest and most alarming sign yet of the psychological toll exacted by the pandemic.

Alcohol and drug use are also soaring in 2020, with some states reporting dramatic increases in overdoses since February. Even before COVID-19 emerged, the U.S. experienced its highest suicide rate since World War II and calls to suicide hotlines and crisis centers have been surging dramatically.

To be clear, some of the mental health distress and problematic substance use that has emerged in recent months will abate, and some people who are currently struggling will likely return to their prior baseline once the pervasive risk factors for these problems have retreated to pre-pandemic levels. The problem is, when that might happen is unclear, and many others who have fallen into despair or addiction during this time may experience more lingering—or even permanent—effects. 

To successfully manage this new reality, legal employers need to start by first acknowledging it. An inability or unwillingness to do so will translate into flatfooted responses as problems become more apparent in the workplace—and they will become more apparent. Employers should expect and prepare for increased visibility of distress and impairment when they are once again seeing their colleagues in person.

As noted, many people have been struggling psychologically and emotionally during this time. It defies both logic and science to think they will be able to flip a switch and suddenly overcome those challenges when it’s time to once again report to the office.  If overcoming mental health and substance use problems was as easy as that, far fewer people would struggle with them on an ongoing basis or eventually succumb to their weight.

Beyond acknowledging the presence of these problems and risks, however, employers need to be taking proactive steps to mitigate their impact and to increase the likelihood that people will get the help they may need. 

This process begins by educating all leadership and management about the changed mental health landscape we are facing and, to the extent possible, getting everybody on the same page about the need to prioritize and focus on these issues now more than ever. In a time of reduced bandwidth and resources, achieving consensus on this point won’t necessarily be a slam dunk. But it should.

Perhaps surprisingly, a foundational component of this education should be to immediately dispel one of the most common refrains of 2020, specifically that we are “all in this together.” Though ostensibly well-intentioned, this motto has proven wildly inaccurate given the disparate impacts of the pandemic on various populations. 

We were not all similarly situated going into the crisis, and it has come to affect people in different ways that vary in both intensity and severity. For some people in any given law firm or organization, the events of the last several months have amounted to a large inconvenience or hassle. For others, this has been a truly traumatizing period, and others still might be somewhere in between.

Although we may have been living through the same events, we have experienced them in a multitude of ways.  As such, a more honest and thoughtful appraisal of the crises we have been facing might be, as some have said, “We’re not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm.” And thus, the need for an awareness of those differences among us and an intentional emphasis on empathy.

Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—will be key to an employer’s ability to manage these new circumstances towards success. Unfortunately, that is a trait that often appears in short supply in the legal profession, making this a good time for all of us to work on cultivating more of it. After all, you may never know what hell the Marty Byrde next to you has been through this year. 

Patrick R. Krill is recognized globally as a leading authority on addiction, mental health, and well-being in the legal profession, He is an attorney, licensed and board certified alcohol and drug counselor, author, advocate, and thought leader. This article was originally published on Law.com and is republished here with permission.

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