Fiona Chambers works part-time as an employment lawyer and also delivers workplace wellbeing training. In this piece, Fiona gives us 12 steps to take a proactive approach to managing stress and building resilience in the coming year.
It’s fair to say that 2020 was a year like no other. For even the most resilient among us, the changes, the uncertainty and all the ups and downs of the coronacoaster have stretched our mental and emotional reserves to the maximum.
As we drag ourselves back to work after a well-earned break over the festive period, facing another period of lockdown, whilst most likely still feeling pretty jaded with all that 2020 threw at us, it is important to reflect on what we can do to boost our resilience and stay afloat in the coming year.
Working in the legal profession can be demanding at the best of times and, now more than ever, resolving to improve mental wellbeing at work will pay its dividends both at work and at home.
With most lawyers now predominantly working from home, there has been increased blurring of lines between work and life and the ever-present nature of technology means that work pressures and demands take even more of a toll on home life. When work demands start to feel excessive, it can have a detrimental effect on our mental wellbeing and our behaviour, both inside and outside of work.
Stress - the point of perceived overload – is where efficiency becomes damage. This point varies between individuals and only you will know how close you are, have been, or may come, to this point.
To kick the year off, here are 12 tips for managing mental wellbeing (one for each month of the year) to help make your approach to 2021 the happiest, healthiest and most resilient yet.
1. Separate the emotions from the problem
Our time at work can be filled with emotional ups and downs. When work goes well and those around us are feeling positive, committed, full of energy and inspired, you get a real high. When it’s going badly, it’s easy to fall into the trap of carrying all of the pieces around with you like emotional baggage. Sometimes we might feel angry, frustrated, powerless, undervalued, threatened or overlooked. Our emotions can trigger anxious thoughts and memories and this in turn can trigger the stress response and leave you in a frantic and jittery state.
When this happens, it can be difficult to reflect on what’s actually going on in your mind, so it is important to remember this: you can’t solve emotions, you can just feel them.
A very important aspect in dealing with stress is to give ourselves the chance to actually feel and acknowledge the emotion. Some people prefer to express emotion by talking to someone else about it and verbalising the emotion, whereas others prefer just to express and acknowledge it to themselves.
One useful technique is to take a piece of paper and write down ‘How does this situation make me feel?’. Once you’ve looked at what you’ve written down, allow yourself to acknowledge the emotions that you are feeling – you can then tell yourself that it’s perfectly ok and natural to feel them. Once you’ve done that, you need to separate the emotion from the problem and start focussing on options for solving the problem.
2. Be kind to others
There has been lots of research done on the positive effect that carrying out an act of kindness for another can have on improving mental wellbeing by activating the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, a natural de-stressor.
No matter how busy you are, make time to spread a little kindness at work. While working from home, this might be as simple as phoning a colleague you haven’t spoken to in a while to check in with them or to just say hello. If you’re someone who needs to write things down to make them happen, how about a recurring appointment in your work diary to do something kind for someone else?
3. Don’t let stress direct your behaviour
Learn to be more self-aware and don’t let stress direct your behaviours. Dealing with difficult clients and unreasonable third parties can be challenging. Often the impulses or sudden urges driven by stress can lead to unhelpful behaviours that exacerbate rather than helping the problem.
For example, when feeling stressed, we’re more likely to want to attack others and defend ourselves, get our point across without listening, not change our stance and win an argument. Training your mind to distinguish between reaction and action, and fact and emotions will help.
4. Get your workload under control
In the legal profession, business is dependent on service delivery and there’s constant demand from clients to meet tight deadlines, as well as internal focus on utilisation rates. It’s no wonder the pressure of working long days can start to take its toll.
Having an ever-expanding to-do list and an inbox that is out of control can be a huge source of stress and pressure. It is the feeling of not being in control over what comes next that can really trigger a stress reaction in our bodies. Feeling in control is central to stress management. Remember, it’s not the load that breaks you, it’s the way you carry it!
Changing focus from trying to manage time to trying to manage mental energy is one useful way of fighting back. Spend some time reflecting on what times of day you are most productive and try to organise your diary so that you can carry out the most complex and demanding tasks at the times of day when your mental energy and productivity are fully charged.
5. Reframe your perspective
In work terms, we all view a situation from our own unique perspective. Whether we’re directly involved or simply observers, we see things differently dependent on our mood, expectation, biases, and distractions.
When the going gets tough, changing our perspective can change how we feel about something and can be a very useful stress management tool. Experts in the field of positive psychology have found that one good way of maintaining that sense of perspective is to effectively project yourself to a different point in time and look back on the situation. When it comes to a particularly stressful situation or period at work, sometimes we have to ask ourselves the following question: 'In one year, in five years, in ten years, is this work issue really going to matter to me?'
6. Don’t play the blame game
Let’s be honest, for most lawyers, the pressure to not make mistakes weighs heavily. Remember that blame is a weapon, especially if you point it at yourself! The problem with blame is that it directs a situation into an emotional dimension – fault and guilt- and this doesn’t help solve the problem, it just elevates stress levels.
We all make mistakes. Instead of allowing your mind to spiral into a destructive loop of anxious thinking and self-loathing, focus your mental energy on learning and growing. Try and replace negative thought patterns such as ‘I’m terrified of making a mistake’, with ‘If I make a mistake, it wasn’t intentional, and I can learn from it and avoid the same mistake again’.
7. Best possible self
Another exercise you can do to encourage positive thoughts and emotions is to allow yourself to visualise in your mind your best possible self in a particular work situation.
This is an opportunity for you to create your own movie in your mind that contains that desired future image of yourself. Imagine that everything has gone better than you hoped, you’ve achieved everything perfectly, you’ve realised your full potential and exceeded everyone’s expectations. The more vivid you can make your visualisation, the better. Try to include the conversations that took place, that great dinner you have when you get home afterwards, when you can look back on the situation and feel proud.
When we create these visualisations and play them in our mind, it really affects how we feel and it can have a really positive impact on both our mood and our thoughts.
When the going gets tough, remember to breathe. Take time to engage in proper, deep breathing that activates the diaphragm. It’s one of the body’s best natural de-stressors after all, it’s free and can be done pretty much anywhere (although do be careful if you’re on the phone…).
9. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
Let’s face it, other people can often be one of the biggest sources of stress in the workplace and that also applies when working remotely! When you feel negative emotions rising – anger, frustration, betrayal, disappointment - before reacting, make sure you spend some time putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and spending a good bit of time walking around in them.
As well as reflecting on your own emotions (and of course, separating them from the problem), try asking yourself the following questions about the other person:
- How are they likely to be feeling about the situation?
- What do they say about me when they talk to their friends or family?
- What do they need from the situation?
- What concerns might they have?
- What hopes and fears might they have?
10. Benefit finding
The skill of being able to find benefit in all situations, even negative ones, can be a great way to build resilience, minimise the stress response and help to gain closure in respect of past events.
To practise this skill, every night for the next week, your task is to pause and look back on your day before you go to bed and write down three things that went well for you at work that day. Write them down and reflect on your role in them. As well as the writing part, the reflecting part is also important as it contributes to our sense of perceived control. Even if you’re struggling to articulate the role you played, ‘noticing’ something also counts as playing a part.
11. Get a good night’s sleep
When it comes to stress, sleep is a big topic and getting a good night’s sleep is hugely important for our mental and emotional wellbeing. Anyone who has, or has been around, young children will know how much thought, planning and routine goes in to ensuring they sleep as well as possible.
Well, guess what? We could all benefit from putting this much effort into our own sleep routine. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Switch off all screens and electronic devices an hour before you’re planning on getting to sleep - maybe even leave your work phone outside of the bedroom to help you resist the temptation to look at it last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Before you start your wind-down routine, grab a blank piece of paper and write down everything that is playing over in your mind. Once it’s written down, you don’t need to think about it until the next day so try your best to focus on enjoying your wind-down routine.
12. Take control
When stress levels start to rise due to feeling like things at work are out of control, you may feel like the situation has been thrust upon you. Often we choose to become victims – logically we want to find an external source for this distress and we can get stuck in victim mindset. It can be quite an indulgent and comforting place to hide!
To help yourself snap out of victim mode and take back control, grab a piece of paper and draw three circles on the page. One circle is for things you can control, one is for things you can influence and one is for things you can’t control or influence. Once you’ve written down everything in each circle, you need to practise focussing on those things within your control and letting go of those things sitting within the circle that you can’t control or influence. Make a conscious decision to put yourself back in the driving seat and start action planning.
Whatever 2021 may throw at you, you’ve got this!
Fiona Chambers works part-time as an employment lawyer and she also provides workplace wellbeing training on topics such as stress, mental wellbeing in the workplace and building resilience. If you’re interested in more information, feel free to contact Fiona at firstname.lastname@example.org.