Scott R. Mote, Esq.
Being a judge is satisfactory … but stressful
By Scott R. Mote, Esq., Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program
The benefits of being a judge are plenty, but it is no surprise that the job comes with stress. Every day, judges are faced with stressors such as a heavy docket, the impact of decisions, unprepared attorneys, self-represented litigants, a lack of public understanding of the judicial process, long hours, and having to rule on contentious family issues. A December 2020 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. judges found that job stress is a health concern for judges (2020 Journal of the Professional Lawyer published by the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility by David Swenson, et. Al, December 2020). More than one-third or more judges reported they had fatigue and low energy, sleep disturbance or disturbed attention and concentration. Fatigue can lead to many other issues, so it is important for judges to understand it and be aware of the warning signs.
Stress causes fatigue
When I was in class in college, there were times I could not keep my eyes open. I’m sure you can relate. I would try as hard as I could, but I would sometimes find my head dropping and eyelids shutting with no control. I would nod off for a second or a minute, even if the class was interesting. This is an example of fatigue, a mental or physical state of extreme tiredness and lack of energy. If you are fatigued, you will have trouble concentrating, making decisions, problem-solving, decision-making, listening, and relating to others, which are all requirements of being a judge.
“In a study of 1,112 decisions by parole board judges in Israel over a ten-month period, the effects of managing a full docket of cases became evident over the course of one day of hearings. In the morning, judges’ decisions tended to be more favorable toward the parolee, but steadily declined until lunch break. After lunch, the favorability was again very high but declined until mid-afternoon break. Following the break, it was again high and declined until closing. This pattern was present in cases involving determinations of release or change in parole terms regardless of the seriousness of the crimes.” (2020 Journal of The Professional Lawyer, Stress and Resiliency in the U.S. Judiciary, by David Swenson, Ph.D. L.P., et al.)
Become familiar with these warning signs of fatigue and make it a goal to get more restful sleep. If not, you will suffer from poor performance, behavior lapses, increased sick time, and impaired judgment.
Fatigue can cause depression
When you are tired and lack sleep, you can become fatigued. If you do not take the necessary steps to get proper rest, fatigue can lead to depression. The 2020 survey found that more than one in five judges meet at least one criteria for depressive disorder. Depression is a common mood disorder that affects the way you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating and working. Depression is not about feeling down or blue for a couple days. Depression symptoms last longer than two weeks, and the severity and signs and symptoms of depression varies from person to person. A person who is depressed should see a medical professional for help.
Common signs of depression:
Sleeping too much or too little
Work is not meaningful
Feelings of hopelessness
Can’t wait for the work day to end
Nothing to look forward to
An example of depression
Judge Z has not been feeling like himself lately. He used to look forward to going to work each day and working with his colleagues. He loved the challenge of deciding cases. Now he finds it difficult to wake up in the morning and dreads going to the courthouse. He feels inadequate, like he is not that good at his job, and negative thoughts keep popping up in his mind. He feels like he has nothing to look forward to. Judge Z needs to seek help for his depression.
Fatigue can causes anxiety
The study also found that 5.6% of the responding judges reported severe or extremely severe symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a normal human response in certain situations, but may become a disorder if you feel anxious most of the time. Anxiety is when you become tense in anticipation of a future event. It also makes a person avoid certain events because of fear.
You have probably heard of anxiety attacks, where a person is so worried about an event that causes the person to sweat, shake uncontrollably, and fear losing control. Other common symptoms of anxiety include:
Shortness of breath
Increased heart rate and palpitations
Feelings of impending doom
An example of anxiety
Judge C has been worried about the outcome of a certain case, and it is affecting her sleep. Racing thoughts occupy her mind, even when she is trying to concentrate. She over-thinks the case, and dreads sitting on the bench. She has a constant fear of impending doom. Sometimes she gets so overwhelmed, her body shakes and she finds it difficult to breathe. Judge C decided to see a doctor about her feelings and was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Her doctor put her on a plan and she is now on the road to recovery.
Depression and anxiety can cause substance use disorders
Sometimes, depression and anxiety can become so overwhelming that people drink or take drugs to cope with the mental health disorder (aka "self-medication").This can eventually become problematic if drinking and/or taking drugs is affecting your daily responsibilities and if you are unable to cut down or stop using mood-altering substances despite attempts to stop.
Signs of substance use disorder (drugs and/or alcohol)
Problems at work
Physical health issues
Withdrawal from activities
Mental health or substance use disorders can lead to suicide
While “thoughts of suicide” was one of the lowest reported effects of stress, it is still troubling that 22 participating judges in the survey experienced thoughts of self-harm. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please follow these guidelines.
Call law enforcement, and ask them to conduct a well visit at the person’s home.
If the person complies, take her to the emergency room.
If the person refuses, stay with her and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800) 273-8255.
An easy and confidential way to seek help
As you can see from the examples above, stress is a serious condition of which judges must be aware. If you notice that you or a colleague are struggling because of stress, depression, anxiety or substance use disorder, take the right step and seek help. You are not alone, and you are not weak because you ask for help. An overly stressed judge can reflect poorly on the judiciary and can result in loss of litigants’ and the public’s confidence. Please take care of yourself and recognize when you need to ask for help.
The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) is a confidential place where you can seek help. OLAP helps the Ohio legal profession cope with the stresses of the job and has saved hundreds of lives and families. No potential disciplinary situation will be made worse by contacting OLAP.