Psychological First-Aid: Understanding Internal Conflict at Work

February 10, 2022

with Brian Forbes, PhD, R.Psych.
Forbes Psychological Services

Workplace conflict comes in many forms. When someone speaks of workplace conflict in a legal workplace, it is generally assumed that there is a conflict between lawyers, between lawyers and legal assistants, or between lawyers and senior partners/managing partners. However, there is another kind of workplace conflict that occurs within an individual, particularly when work demands interfere with other important aspects of an individual’s life, such as health (e.g., fatigue and interrupted sleep, increased susceptibility to illness, and reduced mental well-being). Individuals are, in essence, put in a position of having to ignore or put aside the importance of work-life balance in maintaining both physical and mental well-being in order to meet the demands of the job. Over the years, Assist has noted an increasing number of lawyers reporting workplace stress and anxiety associated with the demands of the job, particularly the expectation that they are expected to respond to emails and phone calls immediately regardless of the time of day and even when they are on holidays.

Individual lawyers are also faced with workplace conflict when it comes to their own mental health. For example, lawyers who have sought help through Assist have reported that their employer, while supporting them in addressing their mental health needs, often gives conflicting messages. That is, they are told that they should take the time to address their mental health issues, but if that means taking some time off work, they are told that that could interfere with future promotions or could adversely impact their ability to be successful lawyers. The conflict here is that a lawyer knows that they need help, and, on one hand, their employer supports them. But on the other hand, the employer makes it clear that doing what it takes to deal with their mental health issue may derail their career as a lawyer.

One dominant trend is that lawyers are experiencing workplace conflict when it comes to their personal lives: the demands of the job interfere with, and create conflict, at home in terms of spousal relationships and parenting. This has become increasingly evident during COVID, when working from home and schooling children at home only exacerbated the degree of experienced stress and burnout. It is my experience, through the delivery of professional counselling services to lawyers, that an increasing number of recent calls to the bar are opting not to work for the moderate/large sized firms where the pressure to perform and the demands of the job dictate that their whole life needs to be devoted to the practice of law. Rather these lawyers are making the decision to leave their larger law firms to establish their own small practice. As one lawyer indicated, his mental well-being, happiness, family and children are more important than a life solely devoted to law 24/7. He acknowledged that he would not be a millionaire with his small practice and that was fine with him. He indicated that he now has the time to spend with his family, he can coach his kids’ hockey teams and go on vacation and not have to take his laptop(s) or cellphone(s). He reported he can now have uninterrupted time with his family and that makes him happy.

As discussed above, workplace conflict is not just limited to conflict with colleagues, bosses and organizations, but can have far reaching implications not only for the practice of law but for the personal and mental well-being of lawyers and their families.

What can you do when you observe a lawyer who is experiencing internal conflict due to job demands? Letting them know that you care is an easy and helpful technique. You can tell them that you have noticed that they appear to be distressed or stressed and ask if they would like to talk about it. You do not have to deliver solutions. Your goal is engaging with them on a human level so they feel less isolated.

You can also connect them to Assist, either for professional counselling or peer support. If the lawyer tells you that they are experiencing depression or anxiety or other psychological symptoms, connecting them with a professional counsellor is appropriate. However, if the lawyer would benefit from connecting with another lawyer who has encountered similar experiences, peer support can be a good resource. Professional counselling and peer support can work together or independently, depending on the person’s needs.

Remember that crisis support with a registered psychologist is available 24/7 at 1.877.498.6898. If you call after business hours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday), you will reach an automated phone system. Follow the prompts (press 0) and you will be connected to the counsellor.