As I’m putting this column together, headlines are blaring that Chicago is colder than Antarctica. Daylight, though growing steadily each day, has been in short supply for months. The holidays seem like a lifetime ago and New Year’s resolutions—should you still play that hopeful game with yourself—likely fell into a roadside ditch some time ago.
So, if you don’t mind me asking, how’s your well-being?
Maybe, and hopefully, you are a bit of a statistical anomaly, and your mood, energy level, vitality and overall lifestyle haven’t dipped along with the temperatures. If you’re in the same boat as most Americans, however, a lot of research (and some common sense) has shown you are prone to eat more, drink more and be less physically active during the winter months. Comfort food and a couch, anyone?
Unfortunately, and especially when you add increased imbibing to the mix, mental health can suffer as a result of these changed behaviors. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the dead of winter is likely exactly the right time to be thinking about and focusing on well-being, both at the individual and profession-wide level.
First, a few words about what you’re likely eating as a result of the season and why your February foodstuffs should probably get an overhaul. As noted, sunlight is in scarce supply in winter, but it is also one of the things that triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, a neurotransmitter that boosts your mood significantly. And guess what else triggers the release of serotonin? Carbohydrate intake. As a result, people may crave carbohydrates as a way to improve mood in the winter—especially people with seasonal depression, who may have lower serotonin levels and mood because of reduced exposure to sunlight.
The problem with that solution, however, is that processed foods and foods high in refined sugars (like many comfort foods) may result in impaired brain functioning and a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. Bottom line, pay greater attention to what you’re eating this winter and see if some healthier choices don’t make the season a bit more psychologically bearable. It’s probably not what you want to do, or feel like doing in the most literal sense, but it’ll be worth it.
On the exercise front, our options for outdoor recreation tend to be reduced in the winter, making something as otherwise simple and accessible as a run or long walk far less appealing. Even the drive to the gym or walk to the yoga studio might feel like more of a slog than you are willing to endure. My unequivocal advice is to aggressively fight this potato-like inertia with every tool at your disposal—especially since you are part of the legal profession, and high stress is very likely part of your daily experience.
Stress doesn’t take a break during the winter months—and it may even get worse because people around you are more depressed and irritable—so neither should one of the best and healthiest ways to manage that stress: regular exercise. At the risk of trademark infringement, just do it.
Finally, let’s chat about your drinking during the winter months, assuming you are someone who drinks alcohol (which, according to an unpublished finding from the ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Study that I led in 2016, you are roughly 20 percent more likely to do as a lawyer than a member of the general population). We know that alcohol consumption is generally higher when it is colder and darker, something that should put lawyers and law firms on heightened notice about their own behaviors, since we already struggle with alcohol problems at much higher levels than other professions.
If you have found yourself consuming more alcohol this winter, don’t write it off or dismiss it as par for the cold-as-hell course. You could be setting yourself up for an escalation of the problem and undermining your mental health. We know that alcohol consumption—especially heavy alcohol consumption—can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
We also know this is quite true for lawyers. Again from the 2016 study, we know that those who screened positive as problem drinkers also had significantly higher levels of mental health distress than their less-consumptive peers, while those who fell in the normal range for mental health symptoms also endorsed far fewer problem drinking behaviors. Simply put, drinking more in the winter may come naturally, but it’s a setup for decreased well-being.
Moving away from the more individual aspects of focusing on well-being this winter, I want to pivot and close with some positive news about the profession as a whole and some significant, collective strides we are making to improve the mental health, substance use and well-being landscape.
If you haven’t previously heard of the ABA Well-being Pledge, let me take a minute to tell you what it’s all about. Based on a framework that I first developed several years ago, the Well-being Pledge is a vehicle for cultural change that is asking law firms and other legal employers to commit to taking seven concrete steps to improve the mental health and well-being of their attorneys and staff. From education, to policies, to culture, the framework will help employers reduce the incidence and impact of substance use and mental health disorders and improve the well-being in their environments.
Since launching a few short months ago, the Pledge now has more than 70 signatories, including many if not most of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world. On Feb. 22, we are holding a kickoff event in Chicago for representatives from all signatory entities to gather and discuss best practices and a shared vision about making well-being a priority in the workplace. It will be a groundbreaking event that would have been inconceivable a few short years ago.
Last but certainly not least, there is growing recognition of the need to overcome the significant stigma that surrounds mental health and substance use problems in the legal profession. As part of that recognition, I am currently helping to lead the production of an anti-stigma video campaign through the ABA. The video, which will contain the powerful testimonials of lawyers, a judge and a law student who have overcome those challenges, will be available in the coming months as a useful tool for sending the message—on social media and otherwise—that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness and doesn’t have to derail your career.
At the same time, leaders like Steve Wall, managing partner of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, have bravely come forward to share their own stories of personal recovery in recent months, first in this Legal Speak podcast last fall and again last week in this great piece on CNN Business.
Taken all together, there are many signs that the legal profession is finally turning a corner on our willingness to discuss and address addiction, mental health and overall well-being—welcome developments just in time to help shake the winter blues.
Patrick Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.