Breaking the Mold

How a medical leave changed my life

Breaking the Mold

According to the National Study on Wellness in the Legal Profession, 9.5% of legal professionals surveyed had taken a medical leave of three months or longer in the previous five years. For 66.7% of these professionals, the diagnosis that led to the leave was a mental health issue.

In a previous column I wrote about taking a leave very early in my career due to mental illness. I discussed how I was reluctant to take a medical leave, despite being advised to do so by professionals. I worried that by taking a leave I would be stigmatized — that other lawyers would view me as damaged. In short, I thought taking a leave would be the end of my career.

Despite my considerable fear, I ultimately did make the difficult decision to take a leave. What was the catalyst? Over time I developed trust and faith in the treating professionals who were recommending the leave. In addition, the Lawyers Assistance Program of BC put me in touch with two peer support lawyers, who each shared with me their experience taking a leave and returning to work successfully. With the help of these professionals and peer support lawyers, I came to the realization that things were unlikely to improve unless I took time away from work.

While the decision to take a leave was extremely difficult for me, telling the firm I needed to take a medical leave was almost as hard. Fortunately, the firm was very supportive. My leave started about two weeks later and was scheduled to last three months. I left for my leave uncertain if it was the beginning of the end of my time at the firm and in the profession.

What did I do during the leave? My counsellor and I created a wellness program. We developed a plan that included exercise, eating healthier, and getting more sleep. I started journaling and reading about spirituality. I learned about workaholism. I attended a lawyer support group and had regular meetups with one of my peer support lawyers. I committed to spending more time with family and friends. I learned about boundaries and worked on my communication skills. I had weekly counselling sessions, which also served as gentle accountability check-ins, to help keep me on track with the program. Being on leave was not a “break.” Working the wellness program was essentially a full-time job.

I returned to work 3.5 months later. The leave was immensely helpful for my mental and overall wellbeing. My mood was significantly improved. I was exercising regularly and in good physical shape. I was more comfortable setting boundaries and communicating my feelings. I was excited to get back to work. That said, I also had some fears. Although I was looking forward to seeing my friends and colleagues again, I worried that I would be perceived differently or treated differently. I was also concerned that I would have difficulty executing the skills and strategies I learned, and that my wellbeing would deteriorate upon my return to work.

Fortunately, the firm was supportive of a gradual return to work, which the professionals had recommended. The gradual return lasted about three months. During that time, I continued to see my counsellor regularly, follow the program we developed, and use the skills I learned. By the end of the gradual return to work period, I was working full-time hours and billing over seven hours a day. It wasn’t always easy, but I had in place a solid foundation, which included a very strong support network.

The end of the leave wasn’t the end of my path to wellness, it was more of the halfway point. But it was the most critical component of the journey. I’ll write more about the rest of the journey in a future column, and more specifically, what keeps me mentally well. I’ll also write about what I think the profession needs to do to address our mental illness pandemic.

If you are experiencing a mental health concern, please consider contacting the Lawyers Assistance Program of BC.