Questions Resilient Leaders Ask Themselves at the End of Every Day — Part II
Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
In this series, we are exploring the three prongs of cultivating a culture of well-being within the prosecution profession. Last week in Part I, we talked about the concept of self-care, and how it encompasses so much more than just an occasional time-out or afternoon off. It is more about being intentional with how we spend all of our time — -not just taking occasional moments to rest and recharge. When we teach our brains how to function better, more efficiently and in a way that doesn’t harm our bodies, we are more apt to crush those difficult projects — -like pouring over the details of a child abuse case or helping a homicide victim’s mother through the autopsy portion of the trial.
This week, we explore the leader’s responsibility to host a plausible work environment and foster sustainable, organizational resilience within a DA’s office. The next reflective question in our series broadens the scope of focus from self-care to office-care.
How did I care for my staff today?
OK, I get how busy you are. I’m not talking about bringing homemade muffins and lattes every morning but, rather, evaluating the basic structure and values of your organization to prioritize employee well-being. When individuals are functioning at optimal levels the office as a whole sees cascading positive effects in performance, cost-effectiveness and longevity.
How did I spend my time today?
As leaders in a DA’s office, our supervisory role consists of three general functions: our administrative responsibilities, our regulatory (responsive) function, and mentoring: offering support & inspiration. The manager’s pie chart fluctuates with the flotsam and jetsam of the criminal justice system but when time is limited — and let’s be real, there’s never enough time — the support and inspiration piece of the pie usually loses the competition for our attention. Ideally, our time would be divided (mostly) equally.
The administrative duties are pretty obvious — it is what we think of when we decide to throw in the proverbial hat to lead an office of underpaid public servants engaging in some of the most challenging work. This piece is made up of day-to-day tasks like preparing the budget, attending meetings, coordinating training for staff, overseeing court assignments, rolling-out initiatives and conversing with the community. It also includes writing policies, establishing procedures and work-flow analytics. For many, it also involves trying cases.
The regulatory/responsive piece is more reactive, akin to putting out fires, catching rabid dogs or playing whack-a-mole. Some overlaps with admin duties, but usually includes the stuff that isn’t on your calendar yet sucks up a huge part of your day, like running into court for a revocation hearing when your deputy calls in with a sick kid or dropping the brief you are writing because the police chief and his three captains show up to criticize your drug prosecutor’s characterization of their detective.. It includes all aspects of progressive discipline and the never-ending efforts to try to keep the peace inside your office and among multiple agencies.
Our responsibility to support, mentor and inspire our employees — the last and unfortunately least piece of the pie — is often left on the if-I-have-time shelf which usually collects dust. Spending time building up people is like investing money in a compounding interest account — it pays off in the long run. If you are able to keep your people in a healthy space, you’ll ideally gain all that time you currently spend talking people off the proverbial ledge. Instead of reacting to a personnel calamity, which is occasionally necessary, consider the benefits of preventing that crisis from coming to fruition in the first place.
Take an honest look at how your day is divided and proactively schedule some time to fill any gaps. Draw your pie-plan for Monday and then on Friday take a peek at how your week actually played out. Prioritize time to drop in on your attorneys and support staff. Ask about their families, dogs and vacations. Plan (or delegate) social functions, an office walk, food drive competition, charity collection, clothing swap, etc. Set up a peer-support network in your office or roll-out a training on secondary trauma. Or just ask the person in front of you how they are doing with the intention of really hearing how they are doing.
What’s my mission?
Successful leaders insert resiliency skills right smack into the middle of the mission statement and competencies. Consider including language delineating your office values to include employee well-being, a supportive work atmosphere, sustainable career paths, fluency in trauma and secondary trauma, realistic caseloads and burnout prevention.
Is the work landscape in my office compatible with life?
Prosecutors’ caseloads are notoriously high. New attorneys sink or swim. The tough survive. Sort of. Like Maslow’s hierarchy, the prerequisite to organizational health requires hosting a PWL-or plausible work landscape — in which leaders look at staff caseloads with new eyes and adjust. Learn to identify signs of burnout or disengagement and provide opportunities for respite. Check your best litigators’ vacation banks and insist they use it. I’ve turned one of my less-stressful FTE slots into rotating temporary placement where my trial attorneys can rest for a few months and recharge. Although it is important for us to teach resiliency skills and foster peer connection, none of that matters if unmanageable caseloads keep your people in crisis. We must make sure the landscape is compatible with life before we look at improving the quality of that life.
I know what you are thinking. I don’t have control over the budget. I can’t hire more people or reduce caseloads because my funders won’t support it.
As attorneys, we know that complex challenges require more than a simple, quick or easy fix. It won’t happen over night and some of it will cost money. But intentionality is free and will get you half way there. Free steps include:
1. Make a multi-pronged plan, with intermediate goals and start taking steps toward those goals.
2. Re-write your mission statement and incorporate well-being into your competencies.
3. Start an internal peer-support program and emphasize the importance of embracing vulnerability and supporting each other.
4. Monitor vacation banks and openly encourage people to take time off.
5. Share information on Prosecutor Well-being with your staff so they know those values are priorities for the office.
Strategies for funding
When you are preparing your ask to your funders for more people and money for secondary trauma training, put together a presentation that includes the ABA report, NDAA’s concerns about prosecutors, statistics about the costs of burnout, addiction and disease, and data about your peoples’ caseloads. You are in this business because you are persuasive. Be persuasive and be persistent. Your people depend on you.
Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.