Stress at work is part and parcel of being a lawyer, right? Why is working in law so stressful?
Well, when your business is dependent on service delivery, and there’s a constant expectation from clients of the highest level of professional standards, it’s no wonder that the pressure of working long days can start to take its toll.
Having to cancel personal plans at short notice can sometimes feel like it’s just another prerequisite of the job, and the ever-present nature of technology means that checking and responding to work emails is often the last thing we do at night and the first thing in the morning. If there is a rare quieter spell, even that’s not an enjoyable experience, as worry suddenly shifts to timesheets, utilisation rates and whether this is the sign of a downturn!
Furthermore, the expectations of clients can sometimes be unrealistic and, of course, there’s that constant risk of complaint (vexatious or otherwise) from clients, the other side or any third party. The pressure not to make mistakes weighs heavily on everyone in a law firm, whatever the nature and level of the role, and if you happen to be a partner, you also have to shoulder the responsibility of any errors made by others in the firm. It’s really no wonder that so many lawyers experience stress at work and feel disillusioned from time to time.
“I’m so stressed about work”
It’s a phrase we hear often, but what does it actually mean? Well, the first thing to understand is that the stress response is part of one of our most basic human survival instincts – the fight or flight reflex as it’s often referred to. When the body senses danger, it releases hormones including adrenalin and cortisol, which provide the body with a boost of energy to either fight the source of the danger or run away from it.
This same stress reaction can be triggered in our bodies in response to certain adverse experiences at work. This is where the problems can start, because when our body goes in fight or flight mode, the release of hormones can inhibit our ability to think straight, and if we are kept in that state for a prolonged period of time, it can also affect our health adversely.
Stress has a significant impact on our bodies, minds and behaviour at work. Quite often when we are in a stressed state, the frantic thinking and typical behaviour that ensue inhibit our ability to resolve the very situation that caused the stress in the first place. It can often feel like you’re chasing your own tail and can’t break free from the cycle of anxiety.
Believe it or not, when it comes to managing stress, our minds (full of legal brilliance though they may be) are not always helpful for improving the situation, unless we know how to keep them in check. In fact, more often than not, our own minds can make a situation seem far worse than it actually is.
When we’re in a particular emotional state, our mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo that state. On feeling stressed or threatened, our minds instantly dig up thoughts and memories of when we’ve felt like this in the past, further deepening how we feel. Stress can feed off itself to create more stress, and a few anxious, overwhelmed thoughts can end up triggering a whole cascade of anxious, self-critical thoughts and negative emotions which can be very powerful and difficult to stop.
Those who are the most emotionally resilient and competent at managing stress well are good at identifying when they have been swept into such a loop, and they have techniques that they can rely on to consciously change their negative and potentially destructive patterns of thinking. We all have a different natural ability to do this, and the good news is, everyone can improve their own self-awareness of their stress response and can learn techniques that will help.
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” (Henry Ford)
Learning to manage our own minds can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to stress management. A big contributor to workplace stress is the feeling that we’ve lost control of a situation. Whether it’s workload, workplace changes, a complaint, the actions of a client, colleague or our manager, all these are external forces that we have no control over.
Naturally, that feels stressful. However, irrespective of the external forces that may be contributing to stress at work, we always have the ability to control how we think. We all have the power of choice over whether to, and how to, react in any given situation. With a bit of training, anyone can learn to be the master of their own mind in an adverse situation at work.
Take care of yourself
When we’re busy and feeling stressed, with a neverending to-do list, looming deadlines and limited headspace to think about anything other than that stressful situation at work, it’s no wonder that the first thing to be cut out is the “luxury” of looking after yourself.
We all know the things that are good for us: exercise, eating well, cutting back on caffeine, getting a good night’s sleep, proper breathing, mindfulness – but we can start next week or the week after when things are a bit quieter, right?
Well, chances are, next week will be busy too, and the next one. If we don’t prioritise looking after ourselves, particularly when we’re feeling stressed, we’re most likely to feel progressively worse and the last thing we want is to get to a point of total burnout. And that’s also the last thing that our employers would want.
Taking care of yourself is central to stress management, and there are effective ways of doing this without having to find lots of extra hours in the day.
Take control of the problem
When the stress reaction is triggered, it can be hard for us to mentally separate the emotions that we’re experiencing from the actual problem. Learning how to do this is a very useful technique for stress management, and when we’re able to do this by properly engaging the problem-solving part of our brain, it’s amazing what can be achieved.
For almost all of the common triggers of workplace stress, there are very practical steps we can take to improve the situation. Whether that’s learning how to ask for help and support in the right way, managing workload better, learning to deal with difficult colleagues and clients, improving our ability to cope with responsibility and decision making, or coping better with workplace changes, there is lots to learn and be optimistic about.
Fiona Chambers is an employment lawyer with experience working in private practice and in-house. Latterly she worked in senior HR roles, prior to setting up StressWise at Work to help organisations address stress and mental wellbeing in the workplace.
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