For most lawyers, self-care and mental health tend to take a back seat to demanding careers.
Plenty of areas end up being neglected, but sleep, diet, and leisure time are generally the main ones to suffer.
Though it has recently begun to be talked about as an important part of health, self-care has traditionally not been a popular topic in the legal world. With the intense pressure of the job and the long hours that come along with it, many lawyers find their self-care lacking, with no clue how to remedy it. With some scheduling and general outlook adjustments, you can learn to enforce healthy habits and make them a regular part of your life.
What’s the Problem?
When we look at statistics about depression, substance abuse, and divorce among different occupations, we find lawyers scoring the highest in all categories. According to the South Carolina Bar Association, one in four lawyers suffers from elevated feelings of anxiety, social isolation, and depression. They also found that substance abuse among lawyers is almost double the national average; with these statistics, it’s no wonder that lawyers have a higher divorce rate than the average American couple. And even in the face of all these alarming numbers, self-care is still not discussed in the legal community. Only recently have some firms taken the initiative in looking into taking care of the mental health of their lawyers. While this is an improvement from the past, there is still much more to be done.
Why Lawyers Neglect Self-Care
Starting in law school, future lawyers face long hours full of reviewing old cases, familiarizing themselves with legal writing, and studying. Through their summers as 1Ls and 2Ls they are faced with more pressure, since they’re expected to win summer associate positions that could affect their careers for years to come. Once they graduate from law school and find a position, whether in Big Law, at a small firm, or in an in-house position, they suddenly have more work, more stress, and less time on their hands than ever before. And that’s not even getting into managing the crushing debt most people are left with. This leaves new lawyers in a position ripe for anxiety and stress. Suddenly, balancing relationships, leisure activities, a reasonable sleep schedule, and diet and exercise with an insane and often unpredictable workload can feel like an impossible task—something has to give, and it’s certainly not going to be work.
Fixing Your Sleep Schedule
Your sleep schedule has a major impact on both mental and physical health. Most Americans don’t sleep the recommended seven to nine hours on a nightly basis, and lawyers, who tend to work more hours than the typical American worker, sleep even fewer hours than the average. Without quality sleep, people are more likely to be easily irritated, depressed, and unfocused, as well as lethargic, prone to illness, and prone to weight gain. One way to improve the quality and length of your sleep is to take advantage of your phone’s “do not disturb” function. Once it’s time for bed, you don’t need to hear a notification or buzz every time you receive a text or email. Checking your phone engages your mind, stimulating it and making you more alert and awake.
Another step to take is to put all screens away one to two hours before you plan on going to bed. (Of course, this can be difficult for lawyers who need to get a few hours of work done before they can call it a night, but try to do this as many days of the week as possible.) The blue light that screens produce suppresses melatonin, the hormone in control of your sleep cycle. Without your phone or computer to distract you before bed and during the night, chances are you will sleep better and feel more well rested at work.
Making Changes to Your Diet
Eating healthy foods can have an impact on the way you feel—which makes sense, since food is fuel. When you eat low-quality, sugar-filled, processed foods, your brain doesn’t function as well as it would if you filled your body with vitamins and antioxidants. There are many quick and easy substitutions for low-quality foods that you can use in your everyday diet to improve not only mental, but also physical health—perfect for lawyers who are often pressed for time. For breakfast, instead of eating sugary cereals, try a low-sugar granola bar and yogurt. Not only is this better for you, but easy to eat on the go. For snacks at your desk, ditch potato chips and try trail mix or chia seed pudding. Both choices are loaded with fiber and fill you up. For lunch and dinner try to cut down on red meat, simple carbs, and high-fat dairy products. Instead, opt for low-in-fat, high-protein chicken or fish dishes. Simple changes like these promote higher brain function, better moods, and better mental health.
Improving and Increasing Leisure Time
No matter how little free time lawyers have, what you do with it can make all the difference. When you spend more time doing things you enjoy, relaxing, and having fun with family and friends, your mental health improves. To make the most of time spent out to dinner with family and friends, have everyone put their phones in the middle of the table and make it a game to see who can go the longest without checking theirs. If you’re worried about missing an important call, change your ringtone for whomever you’re expecting to hear from so you’ll know if you need to pick up. And here’s a surprisingly obvious tip: Simply keep your plans. Even if it’s Friday night and you’re tired after the long work week, don’t cancel. If you made plans with your significant other, best friend, or mother, go and use that time with your loved one to destress after the hectic week.
Lastly, don’t forget to make time just for yourself. It’s important to set aside time to do what you like to do, rather than spending all your time only on the things you have to do. Whether you use your long commute to read a book, watch your favorite television show every Wednesday night, or set aside an hour every Sunday to do yoga, don’t forget to do the things you love, just for yourself.
Over the next few weeks, adjust your schedule by adding things to it that put caring for yourself at the forefront, and make adding these things a priority. Eek out time to engage in hobbies, spend time with loved ones, cook, and just relax. And of course, work on your sleep!