Contributed by Ian Bernstein
Legal and policy initiatives exist internationally to address and reduce psychosocial hazards in the workplace. In many countries, such initiatives include efforts to protect workers’ mental health, which thus imposes a duty of care on employers to safeguard the mental well-being of their employees, and to provide help where possible to tackle mental health problems. This includes Canada, as for instance, Saskatchewan explicitly includes mental health in the purview of its Occupational Health and Safety Act. Preventing or helping to reduce adverse mental health outcomes in employees is especially important amidst a pandemic. Luckily, although unbeknownst to many of them, employers have resources at their disposal that can be used to help them exercise this duty, one of them being mindfulness training.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as an awareness that emerges through paying purposeful attention to the unfolding of an experience in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness, typically through meditation in groups or alone, allows us to be fully aware of our environment and our inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions on a moment-by-moment basis, without judgment or criticism. Mindfulness can help reduce stress through working as a circuit breaker for the cycle of stressor and reaction, because it helps to counteract our unconscious reactivity to stress by bringing it to our awareness. This in turn allows us to acknowledge, but take a step back from the stress and to see it from a different perspective, rather than repressing it and allowing it to fester. The ability to simply accept things as they are, without attempting to control them, is at the heart of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a great solution as it is relatively low cost, time-efficient, and can be practiced alone in any setting. This is particularly helpful during a pandemic with the implementation of physical and social distancing measures.
Benefits of Mindfulness for Professionals and Students
Mindfulness practice can benefit those in any profession, and this includes lawyers, who often work highly demanding jobs with long hours and encounter many sources of stress. According to the Mindfulness in Law Society, practicing mindfulness cultivates many skills and mental qualities that can be helpful to those in the legal profession, including the ability to focus, concentrate, recognize and let go of distractions, manage stress and other emotions, and accept others openly, compassionately, and authentically. Moreover, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being discussed in their 2017 comprehensive report how practicing mindfulness can also enhance many competencies related to lawyer effectiveness, including increased working memory, critical cognitive skills, reduced burnout, and ethical and rational decision-making, while simultaneously reducing rumination, stress, depression, and anxiety.
These aforementioned benefits associated with mindfulness training also apply to students. Particularly given the present circumstances which include online classes on Zoom and studying predominantly from home, the boundary between students’ social and academic lives has been attenuated, and students are being rendered dependent upon technology in order to succeed and advance in their academic careers. It is thus unsurprising that many students, including law students, are continuously distracted by their cell phones and laptops. Such distraction can have adverse effects on the students’ ability to pay adequate attention to their lectures, and effectively learn the required material. Mindfulness training can help, as it has been demonstrated to improve attention, working memory, academic achievement, and creativity by reducing various sources of stress and negative emotions which interfere with focus and learning.
New teaching methods amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have increased distractions and stress levels among students. || (Source: creativecommons // bastamanography)
Dissemination of Mindfulness Interventions
Increased mindfulness research has culminated in a push to implement mindfulness interventions in the workplace, including the legal profession. In Canada, mindfulness workshops, in particular those that teach people how to prevent, identify, and cope with sources of stress that can contribute to or exacerbate mental illness, have been promoted by the Canadian Bar Association and the Law Society of Ontario. In the United States, similar mindfulness programs created by experts have been implemented in some of the most prestigious law firms in the nation. Moreover, at least a dozen American bar associations have programs related to mindfulness. Dentons, a multinational law firm, developed a pilot mindfulness program in 2018 and recruited lawyers from across their European offices to participate. The results of the pilot demonstrated a statistically significant decrease in overall stress and improvement in social and emotional well-being.
Implementing mindfulness interventions in the workplace can be beneficial for professionals. || (Source: creativecommons // jurvetson)
A similar trend can be observed in universities. For instance, one of the recommendations for law schools in the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Report is to create a well-being course and lecture series for students, which focuses on stress-reduction techniques and how substances like alcohol and marijuana affect cognitive function, among other things. Accordingly, Western University’s law school in London, Ontario, has introduced a course about exercising mindfulness, which is thought to be the first of its kind in Canadian law schools. In addition, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law has implemented a mindfulness program comprised of multiple sessions that students can attend, and Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law has followed suit. Mindfulness has made its way into American law school curricula as well, with mindfulness courses being offered at law schools across the country, including at Ivy League universities such as Yale and Columbia.
Despite the evidence corroborating the effectiveness of mindfulness training for employees and students, there remains apprehension regarding the utilization of mindfulness. In the legal context, some fear that the development of a deeper understanding of one’s own motives and decisions might make it difficult for some lawyers to undertake certain activities that are widely considered essential for proper lawyering, such as questioning a hostile witness or steadfastly advocating for a client’s positions. However, the skills acquired through mindfulness practice can help nurture a service orientation in some lawyers and law students, connecting them with the service-oriented motivations that ultimately drew them to the legal profession.
Mindfulness training can be helpful in mitigating many of the stressors and negative emotions that employees and students alike tend to experience in their daily lives, particularly amidst the ongoing pandemic. It must be remembered that a healthy employee is a good employee, and a healthy student is a good student. Therefore, nurturing the mental health of employees and students is crucial, and practicing mindfulness is an ideal way to cultivate feelings of positivity and relaxation at a time when they are much needed.
Ian Bernstein is a Junior Online Editor for the McGill Journal of Law and Health, and a second year JD/BCL student at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. Prior to beginning law school, Ian completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and linguistics at McGill. During his undergraduate studies, Ian completed two honours theses, one of them examining the efficacy of a mindfulness-based intervention for weight loss, which is where his interest in mindfulness stems from. Ian was also involved in research through having been the recipient of an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award in 2017, as well as a Psychology Undergraduate Research Award in 2018.