The addiction no one wants to talk about

The findings of the 2017 National Taskforce on Lawyer Wellbeing continue to reverberate throughout the profession. The report’s most often-cited statistics highlight problem drinking and substance abuse. However, there is another addiction mentioned in the report about which the profession has studiously avoided discussion: work addiction. The report cites one study finding that 26% of lawyers were work addicted, a rate more than double that of the general public.

At the same time, the report comments that the profession’s high levels of depression, anxiety, and addiction are generally met with “a sense of acceptance rather than outrage.” When it comes to work addiction in particular, one might say the profession goes beyond “acceptance” to “denial and defense.” We don’t talk about overwork and, when we do, it is as often in admiration. For our law students, “gunners” may be teased but are not the subject of concern. Attorneys with astronomical billable hours are promoted and rewarded not encouraged to find greater balance. As the North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program comments, work addiction is “socially sanctioned and all-but-required in some areas of law practice.”

The TaskForce report gives only one paragraph’s notice to the question of work-addiction, encouraging legal employers to “monitor for work addiction and avoid rewarding extreme behaviors” and provides no further guidance.

The solution begins with accepting that there is a problem and working to understand and address it. To build a healthier work culture, the profession must not sneer at concerns for work-life balance and self-care. We must recognize the real costs of obsessive work and extreme expectations. Hard work is not a bad thing in itself. But when we live to work rather than work to live, we need to step back and assess whether we have lost balance and help others to do the same.

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