The leader’s role in promoting healthy work-life balance

Mike Holley

First Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County

From time immemorial, good leaders have struggled with a persistent question: Should I focus primarily on pursuing the purpose of my organization, or should I focus on attending to the welfare of the people who accomplish that purpose? Is my focus on our purpose or on our people? This is not an easy question for the thoughtful leader. Sometimes the demands of an office supersede the needs of the individual. At other times, the individual’s needs are so significant that the interests of the office must be relegated to second place. The needs of people are important, yes, but the reason for a person’s presence in an office is to accomplish a specific purpose. When does one give way to the other? How does a leader reconcile these two competing interests?
    Here’s a modest proposal.1 Generally, if we take care of our people, our people will take care of the purpose. What’s more, if we fail to take care of our people, we endanger not just the welfare of the individual, but also the purpose of the organization.2 Aim for the first goal, and we get both thrown in. Aim for only purpose, and we may achieve neither.

Work-life balance
A fundamental framework for taking care of people is found in the concept of a good work-life balance. By “work-life balance” (WLB), I am using the term in its broadest sense. I mean, in essence, finding a rhythm and approach to work that allows for the purposes of the office to be accomplished at a high level while still allowing the people who accomplish that purpose to have a reasonable opportunity to lead healthy, happy, productive lives both within and outside the office.
    At the outset, WLB certainly involves the quantity of time people spend at the office. Many people in our profession have experienced the 70-hour-plus workweek. Those grueling workweeks, while sometimes required, are clearly neither healthy nor sustainable. As just one example, people who work 55 hours or more per week have a 33 percent greater risk of stroke.3 Prosecutors and other employees must put in extensive hours from time to time, but a life spent overwhelmingly at the office is simply not “balance.”
    But WLB goes beyond simply the amount of time spent at work. The concept of WLB recognizes that the climate and culture within an office can be so detrimental to our lives outside the office that the amount of time we spend in the office is almost immaterial. So there are two sides of the WLB coin: the amount of time we spend at the office and the quality of that time. Both are important to good WLB. When we do not have good WLB in the office, certain problems manifest themselves.

Problems Associated with Poor WLB4
• Chronic fatigue, headaches, and digestive difficulties
• Increased illness and absenteeism
• Unreasonable or unprovoked anger
• Feelings of pessimism and hopelessness
• Addictions of various sorts
• Depression and other mental health issues
• Broken and damaged personal relationships
• Poor performance generally
    Because problems that flow from poor WLB are so common, we are tempted to accept them as normal. This state of affairs is not normal, nor should we accept it as such. Even for those of us who recognize this state of affairs as problematic, we often find ourselves struggling to change an organization. Sometimes this struggle arises from the limitations of our authority or influence. Very often, the struggle arises from the natural challenges to WLB in a prosecutor’s office, of which there are many.

Employees with Good WLB are:
• Sharper, more confident, and less likely to make mistakes
• More likely to be productive, creative, and sympathetic5
• More likely to get along with others and contribute to their teams
• Less likely to cause division, strife, and frustration in others
• More likely to make good judgment calls6
• Less likely to commit significant errors7
• Less likely to develop harmful addictions or struggle with mental health issues8
• More likely to remain in the profession9

Challenges to WLB
• Common lawyer personality traits work against WLB.10
• Difficult work with serious consequences.11
• Conflict driven, complex, high-paced work required.12
• Lack of adequate resources including pay.13
• The public’s negative perceptions of the criminal justice system.14
• Lack of leadership training for lawyers and other supervisors.15

The leader’s role
Despite these real challenges, I urge you, as a leader (that is, someone who can direct or influence others at any level), to do what you can to improve the WLB of your office. Don’t be discouraged by an inability to make sweeping changes. Do what you can, when you can. There are a number of benefits to your employees connected to improving WLB. More importantly, as a person, it is the right thing to do!

Nine suggestions for leaders
If you are ready to work toward good WLB, what are some practical suggestions for doing so?

1. Manage expectations. Prosecution is a tough job, and it’s not for everyone. Help your people understand this reality. Explaining to the young attorney (or other new employees in the office) what is expected regarding the pressures he’ll face, the hours he’ll work, and the standards to be maintained is the starting point of maintaining WLB. Explain that the profession is a progression: The nature and number of the hours worked early on may be different from those later in a career as the employee develops, becomes more efficient, and handles cases that are different in nature. Explain that excellence is the expectation, and that excellence requires hard work, full stop. To do otherwise is to guarantee that the employee will struggle with WLB as his expectations are incompatible with his experience.

2. Listen to increase efficiencies. Set about reducing or eliminating inefficiencies as much as reasonably possible. Doing so improves WLB both by saving time and effort and by reducing stress and frustration. Communicate with your people regularly about what changes make sense and what resources are really needed.16 The benefit of mining the valuable feedback that exists in any organization is two-fold: It intelligently improves the functions of the organization, and it also gives subordinates vital “buy-in” to the process, both of which can significantly improve WLB.

3. Ruthlessly combat “mission creep.” Otherwise-excellent leaders are often enticed to sign on to interesting and meaningful projects not connected to the core purpose of the office. The quick and easy “yes” by the leader, however, is often followed by a significant cost later—costs generally borne by the subordinate. Those costs take their toll on WLB. The accumulation of many “minor” side missions or the agreement to pursue major objectives outside the office’s core purpose is “mission creep.”17 Mission creep is a real and constant threat to WLB and one that must be constantly monitored and mercilessly combated. To avoid mission creep, the leader must indeed be ruthless, often giving the quick “no” and providing only a slow “yes” to any request that strays from the real purpose of the office. (For more on this very important idea, please see Shanna Redwine’s review of Essentialism.)

4.Intentionally supervise. Leaders too often succumb to this attitude regarding their subordinates: “When I was at his position, I often had to do X. It was even harder to do X back then, and I did it without complaint.” While this may have been true, it also may not have been necessary!18 Simply because you struggled mightily at a point in your career does not mean this is a necessary or wise path forward for those you lead.19 A distinction needs to be made at this point. Sometimes a leader will place a prosecutor in difficult, stressful situations for a specific purpose. For example, a supervisor may choose to have a particular prosecutor first-chair three serious, complicated felony cases in a three-week span to teach the prosecutor that such a thing can be done and to help the prosecutor improve her confidence and time-management skills. To do so in a particular situation might be wise.
    Too often, however, the general practice is to allow such an event to happen out of a leader’s passivity, not from an intentional decision. The prosecutor who tries three (or more) cases in three weeks usually does so without much help not because there is a specific goal in the leader’s mind but because the leader is not paying attention, is indifferent to the challenges the prosecutor is facing, or is reverting back to the “when I was at her position” mentality. This is leadership flowing from negligence and apathy. Leadership that leads to good WLB requires intentionality.

5. Know your people and communicate with them regularly. Like members of the military, prosecutors and others who work in a prosecutor’s office are often reluctant to admit when they are struggling and will invariably refuse to ask for help, even when they need it. Leaders must, therefore, affirmatively, actively, and consistently keep close tabs on their people and help them when and as needed. The most effective way to do this is for leaders to get to know their people well enough to appreciate when they need a break in the rotation, to recognize signs of stress, and to identify the best approach to dealing with a specific pressure.20 This may take the form of reminding the employee to get adequate sleep, to eat regularly, and to develop healthy outlets independent of work, all of which requires the leader to know and care about the employee as an individual. (As an aside, the old saying, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care,” will take leaders a long way in this regard.)

6. Destigmatize resources. Not only are people who work in a prosecutor’s office disinclined to ask for help when needed, they are reluctant to receive help when offered. This is particularly true if that help is connected to any type of mental health assistance, assistance that prosecutors very often need. It is therefore important for leaders to talk early and often about resources that can be helpful and to legitimize these resources. The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) is an example.21 Employee assistance programs are another. There is help for lawyers who struggle with depression, anxiety, and addictions, all problems that are an occupational hazard for prosecutors.22
    The leader cannot simply relay the existence of these resources in a rote or dismissive manner and consider the job done. Instead, the leader should sincerely and regularly communicate the value these resources and encourage their use whenever appropriate. Speaking about TLAP or similar resources, for example, with a mocking tone or even a light joke does far more harm that one might guess. The message from the leader in that situation is clear—you would be weak to avail yourself of this help. On the other hand, the leader who can sincerely communicate the value of these programs and destigmatize their use will greatly advance the effort to obtain and maintain good WLB.23

7. Create organizational safeguards. Maintaining good WLB is difficult partly because it’s a constant struggle to deal with many different types of problems. Good leaders can help themselves in this effort by setting up systems and procedures to acts as fences and gates to deal with differing problems. As an example of an organizational fence (meaning, a boundary), the leader can require prior approval for employees to work on holidays. The leader who observes an employee working every holiday might then inquire further into that person’s work habits, schedule, and general well-being. Another example of an organizational fence is the insistence that leaders at all levels honor, both in letter and in spirit, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), vacations, time off, etc. Still another safeguard is to either completely sever or strictly control the use of after-hours electronic tethers, such as email and texts, except in legitimate emergencies.24
    Examples of organizational gates (meaning, openings, as opposed to fences, which are obstacles) for WLB are psychological assessments and monitoring of individuals in particularly sensitive positions in the office by trained mental health care professionals. This is particularly important for individuals who are more likely to experience secondary trauma based on the nature of their work.25

8. Create a positive work environment. A critical part of the leader’s role in obtaining good WLB is to make work enjoyable whenever possible. The leader who creates a safe, positive, professional environment can contribute greatly in this regard. Set aside time and resources for breaks from the pressures of work. The leader can encourage the celebration (within reason) of major life milestones like holidays, birthdays, births, engagements, awards, etc.26 Training events—particularly those where staff members can get out of the office—can be made to be fun and enjoyable.27 Encouraging staff members to eat lunch together and to spend time together outside of the office can be helpful.28
    Even more important than these planned activities, however, is the leader’s role in creating a positive office culture. Praise publicly whenever possible and criticize privately. Leaders should endeavor to inspire instead of leading solely by fear. Consistently demonstrate that you trust your employees.29 Foster an environment where the individual is valued and developed as an individual, not simply as a cog in the machine. Focus first on fixing problems rather than rushing to affix blame. Concentrate on, as my District Attorney Brett Ligon says, “preparation and presentation” rather than specific results at trial, and inspire subordinates to the higher call of seeing that justice is done in all circumstances. Use humor to help ease pressure and express genuine gratitude to those who do the hard work of the office. Don’t reward abusive behavior by others; take actions to eliminate this behavior whenever it occurs.30

9. Be self-aware. Last but certainly not least, self-awareness is arguably the foundation for effective leadership. Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is the starting point for leading others. Leaders often struggle with WLB themselves, and sometimes these struggles need to be acknowledged and addressed. If a leader has a significant problem in this regard, she has a responsibility to get help for herself and make the necessary changes for the sake of the people she leads. Leaders must be careful not to assume that what is “balance” for them ought to be balance for those they lead. For example, a leader may prefer to consistently work 60 hours a week, but the leader should not presume that their subordinates feel the same way. Similarly, a leader may not be emotionally overwhelmed in dealing with a case involving say, the murder of a child, but she may need to recognize that another prosecutor trying the same type of case might be deeply burdened by such work.

Final thought
Employees of a DA’s office are in many ways similar to those Americans who serve in the Armed Forces. Like many members of the military, DA employees are talented, dedicated, selfless, tough-minded, brave, and incredibly resilient. Our leadership challenges, though difficult, are tremendously benefited by these characteristics. Our cause, too, is noble. Our people want to do well, and with a little skill and intentionality on our part, they will. Creating a good WLB is not an obstacle to excellence—it is the path to excellence. Take care of your people, and enjoy watching them take care of the purpose in ways that will make us all proud to work in a prosecutor office!


1  I served on active duty in the United States Army from 1993 to 2006. I was initially a Military Police officer, then went to law school at the Army’s direction. I served as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and instructor at the Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School and deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I subsequently spent six years at plaintiff’s firm in Houston before joining the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. I have been married for 26 years and have four children.

2  A basic example of this point is the prosecutor who becomes so overburdened with personal or professional problems that he fails to attend to a discovery matter, which in turn results in a case being reversed or dismissed.

3  Kivimaki, Miki et al. “Long working hours and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: a systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished data for 603,838 individuals.” The Lancet, Volume 386, Issue 10005, 1739-1746.

4  Carter, Sherrie “The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout…Do You Have Them?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, LLC, 26 November 2013. Web. 2 August 2017. https://www the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them.

5  Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, “Proof That Positive Work Cultures are More Productive,” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review Publishing, 1 December 2015.

6  Overwork and the resulting stress leads to myriad serious health problems and cause problems for the office, including increased absenteeism and turnover. Overwork can also make “interpersonal communication, making judgement calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotion reactions” more difficult (emphasis added). Carmichael, Sarah Green, “The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 19 August 2015.

7  Adam M. Gershowitz and Laura R. Killinger, The State (Never) Rests: How Excessive Prosecutorial Caseloads Harm Criminal Defendants, 105 Nw. U. L. Rev. 261,282 (2015).

8  A study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that over 20 percent of attorney respondents in the study suffered from problematic drinking. More specifically, men were more likely to be problem drinkers than women, and younger, newer attorneys were more likely to be problem drinkers than older, more experienced attorneys. The study also found that 61.1 percent of participants reported struggling with anxiety, while nearly half, 45.7 percent, reported struggling with depression. The two most common barriers to seeking treatment reported by participants were not wanting others to find out they needed help and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality. Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, J. Addiction Medicine, Jan.-Feb. 2016, at 46, 48-50.

9  Royal, Mark, “Everybody Wins with a Healthy Work-Life Balance,” CNBC, 8 May 2013. 100720414

10  Latham, Tyger “The Depressed Lawyer.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, LLC, 2 May 2011. Web. 2 August 2017. Latham describes the personality types of many lawyers and how these personality types contribute to stressful lifestyles.

11  For an excellent treatment of this subject, see Miles-Thorpe, Stacy, “Trauma for the tough-minded prosecutor.” The Texas Prosecutor, July-August 2016, Volume 46, No. 4.

12  Wil Miller, who spent 10 years as a sex crimes prosecutor, the last six months of which he was addicted to methamphetamines, described it this way: “Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance—but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.” Zimmerman, Eilene “The Lawyer, the Addict.” The New York Times, 15 July 2017.

13  Interestingly, the difference in pay between “service lawyers” (i.e., prosecutors) and “prestige lawyers” (i.e., civil lawyers) does not result in less job satisfaction for the service lawyer. Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, “What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success,” 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015). On the other hand, every dedicated prosecutor has, at some point, wished for more resources to prosecute cases, and government service (at least at the state level) is clearly limited in that respect. Additionally, I suspect that the shadow of student-debt impacts the WLB of many prosecutors as they dutifully work long, hard hours at very modest salaries.

14  Jones, Jeffrey. “In U.S., Confidence in Police Lowest in 22 Years.” Gallup, 19 June 2015. I suspect that the real issue is not whether the public has lower confidence in prosecutors than they had before, but whether the individual prosecutor believes the public has less respect and appreciation for the prosecutor’s work. Anecdotally, at least, this seems to be the case.

15  For an interesting discussion of why this might be the case, see Furnari, Stephen, “Are Lawyers Horrible Bosses?” Law Firm Suites, 2 September 2014.

16  We have had some success with the use of “sensing sessions.” The term “sensing session” comes from the practice in the military of obtaining feedback from subordinates. The commander attempts to get a “sense” of the how well things are working in a particular military unit. Generally, this is done by assembling a relatively small group of individuals who are similarly situated (in our example, all court legal assistants or all misdemeanor prosecutors). Someone with good discretion and good judgment and who is not in the supervisory chain of command then facilitates a series of guided questions and records the results. Generally, these results are reported without attribution unless the individual providing the feedback specifically agrees. Typical questions might be, “In your opinion what is working well?”; “In your opinion, what is not working well?”; and “What would help you to do your job better?”

17  The Oxford Dictionary defines mission creep as “a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in unplanned long-term commitment.”

18  My friend and colleague Lisa Stewart cleverly characterizes this attitude in the following: “We always hear the stories about how so and so went up hill both ways in the snow carrying firewood in both hands. My question is, ‘Why didn’t you get around to building a sled?’”

19  There is an interesting mental error we are all subject to, a specific variant of the “availability bias” called “the headwind/tailwind asymmetry.” In essence, we tend to remember the challenges we had in a particular endeavor, but we forget the benefits we had at the same time (when running, we are very aware of the headwind, but once we make the turn, we quickly forget the tailwind). For example, the prosecutor who remembers preparing for five trials on a given Monday may not remember that, say, the discovery obligations for those cases were much different from what they are today. For more on this interesting concept, see Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. “The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 835-851 (2016).

20  For a helpful list of behaviors to look for, See Hughes, Rick, “10 Signs Your Employees are Suffering from Stress and Anxiety.” HRZone, Sift Media, 21 May 2013.

21  Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program can be found at

22  Lawyers With Depression is a very helpful website that can be accessed at

23  When appropriate and in the right setting, sharing the leader’s personal experiences with these types of programs can be extremely helpful in convincing others of their value.

24  As a general rule, there is a direct correlation between the frequency of checking email and stress generally. Kushlev, Kostadin and Dunn, Elizabeth. Checking Email Less Frequently Reduces Stress. Elsevier, Computers in Human Behavior 43 (2015) 220-228. I’m confident that this would apply to checking email while off work. 2010/11/kushlev-dunn-email-and-stress-in-press1.pdf.

25  For those personnel in select assignments, such as in our Internet Crimes Against Children Division, we have a psychologist do initial, interim, and exit interviews to assess mental and emotional health issues. The screening includes anxiety, depression, and secondary trauma assessments, with a follow-up interview by the psychologist.

26  Two of the highlights of our year occur at Thanksgiving when we shut the office down for two hours and enjoy a pot-luck meal together, and then again at Christmas when we again eat with one another and do a Secret Santa gift exchange. Throughout the year, we also gather together to commemorate arrivals and departures and significant achievements in the office.

27  Our chief prosecutors recently underwent training using sub-munitions with one of our police agencies. The prosecutors cleared rooms and conducted traffic stops. The training was enjoyable and very effective in communicating the realities and limitations of using deadly force in citizen interactions.

28  Be careful about centering these events primarily on alcohol or glamorizing excessive drinking generally. In a profession where addictions claim so many of us, a little caution and common sense should be exercised.

29  “High-trust organizations have been shown to outperform low-trust organizations by 286 percent in total return to shareholders.” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Truth About Leadership. p. 75. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.

30  Few things are as disheartening to good employees as leaders who fail to affirmatively deal with a substandard performer or mean-spirited employee. The “jerk” in the office, in particular, is an obstacle to good WBL. For more on this subject and at the risk of a purveying a mild obscenity, I point you to Robert Sutton’s book, The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. (Apologies, Mom: That’s actually the title of the book.)