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Link Between Remote Work and Mental Health Becomes Clearer

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close and as summer vacation season draws nigh, two significant news items in the legal ecosystem prompt us to revisit the connection between hybrid work flexibility and mental health.

ALM and Compass recently released the findings from their annual Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession. The 2023 survey asked 3,000 lawyers questions concerning the state of their mental health and how, if at all, their firms’ approaches to mental wellness affected their mental health. The survey revealed that mental health issues increased despite firms’ increased efforts. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they had anxiety. Nearly 40% said they were depressed. Almost one-third said they suffered from some other mental health issue, more than double the number of respondents who said the same thing last year.

The number of attorneys who said that mental health and substance abuse issues were worse in the legal profession increased to 63%. While ongoing market uncertainty and lingering effects from the pandemic likely did little to ease mental health burdens, the survey sought to identify specific workplace factors that impacted mental health. More than 44% indicated that lack of support for personal well-being negatively impacted their well-being. While more than 27% indicated that pressures concerning in-office work were negatively affecting their mental health. More than 72% indicated that remote work improved their quality of life while nearly 60% said that some amount of remote work improved their physical well-being.

This report arrived almost simultaneously with news that another AmLaw100 firm was making efforts to persuade attorneys to return to the office by leveraging year-end bonuses against in-office attendance. Above the Law reported that Simpson Thacher & Bartlett recently added the following update to the firm’s employee handbook: “The Firm may consider your compliance with applicable in-office requirements when determining whether you are eligible to receive any discretionary bonuses the Firm may award (including, but not limited to, any year-end bonuses).”

There are many factors driving law firms’ inclination to have lawyers back in the office. Factors like lease obligations, concerns about establishing and cultivating firm culture, and following clients’ own in-office policies. But in the wake of growing evidence that the flexibility remote work provides augments mental well-being, requiring attorneys to work in the office while simultaneously promoting their programs supporting mental health seems difficult to reconcile.

Much of what drives a firm’s mental health efforts and policies is the imminent recruitment cycle. Firms who tout their flexible policies, their commitment to inclusion, their focus on employees’ mental health to potential associates must be held accountable. New associates should remain optimistic but be prepared to be diligent when it comes to such representations. If your law firm touted any of the above, then make sure they do something to prove they take such proclamations seriously. If the firm says they are going to revamp their policies to provide authentic workplace flexibility, then make sure they do so. And once they do this, make sure the firm makes its culture such that you neither feel like nor are perceived as an anomaly for working remotely.