Recognizing and Helping a Distressed Colleague

Research from Johns Hopkins University (1990) shows law to be the number one occupation for clinical depression. Members of the legal profession are diagnosed as clinically depressed 3.6 times that of the general population, at 13.6%. Studies in Washington, Arizona and Wisconsin puts the figure at 20% and in Florida at 32%.

Dissatisfaction in the workplace is at an all-time high among lawyers.

Substance abuse among lawyers is rampant. About 10% of the general adult population are dependent on alcohol. Washington State found that among lawyers practicing from 2 to 20 years, 18% were dependent on alcohol and for those practicing more that 20 years the figure was 25%. Many of these individuals were both depressed and chemically dependent.

These numbers are shockingly high. There are many possible reasons and many contributing factors but the real issue is what are we going to do about it now. The Lawyers Assistance Program is available to help those who are having difficulties and to provide assistance and guidance to those who think another member may be having difficulties.

I hear about many individuals who have run afowl of the Law Society or have gotten into some other serious trouble. How can we offer help to theses individuals before they get into such serious trouble?

Do you know someone who is struggling? Have you and others been talking about and been concerned about a colleague? If so call the LAP. We will offer help. Perhaps we can assist you to help that person. Perhaps we can do some form of outreach and offer assistance.

We at the LAP are non judgmental– and we suggest you be also.

It is not your duty, nor in anyone’s best interest, to attempt to diagnose a fellow members medical or personal problems. However, in a compassionate workplace we must care about one another and distress will usually cause tell warning signs in attendance, performance, and behaviour.

Here are some things to look for.


Whether due to chronic pain syndromes, depression, smoldering substance dependence or chronic unrelieved stress – such as that experienced by a person living in an abusive alcoholic home- workers with these complex conditions will eventually begin to lose time from work. They will take more sick days. When off with and injury or illness they often take longer to return than other workers. There are often patterns of absence: seasonal, around weekends and holidays. They are more likely to be late.


Erratic is the adjective to describe the worker with chronic biopsychosocial conditions. Some days their work will be excellent, other days it might be unacceptable. They forget things and make mistakes. They begin to make errors in judgement. They postpone or procrastinate to a serious degree.

Look out for deterioration of performance. They may fail to return telephone calls or correspondence.


Others begin to avoid them because they are moody, volatile, irritable. They often look sick and tired. They are often needlessly hostile or perhaps erratic in their behaviour. They often choose to work in an isolated job where they can avoid interaction – and supervision. They may have interpersonal problems, with fellow workers, with supervisors and often they are more likely to file complaints about others. They gradually develop fat files: human resources files, files at the Law Society or with the Insurance Fund and medical files at the doctor’s office.

Other Risk factors and red flags of possible distress.

  • Claims/litigation, excessive complaints by clients and/or staff, law society complaints, workplace discipline.
  • Shift in status, (promotion, demotion, change in hours)
  • Poor medical documentation
  • Divorce/separation, deaths/grieving, financial difficulties,
  • Signs of “Stress” such as complaining of overwork and stress

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