High stress levels and burnout is an occupational hazard for lawyers, as most jurisdictions show that physical and mental health in the profession continues to plummet, but there are some key steps that lawyers can take to avoid the effects of their stress.
A recent report in Australia, from Executive Health Solutions, found that lawyers have dropped from first to seventh place in overall health, with similar falls in mental health (12 to 16.)
And Australia is similar to most other Western jurisdictions where mental health and burnout issues in the legal profession continues to cause concern.
As firms everywhere grapple with a variety of health-risk issues ranging from high rates of attorney addiction, depression and suicide, the focus has increasingly been placed on how law firms handle such issues.
Client demands for fast turnaround times, even on non-urgent matters, can leave outside counsel in constant crisis mode, as Law.com reported recently.
But lawyers can do much themselves to handle these major issues.
And workplace concerns lead to personal problems and a range of ancillary health issues affecting lawyers n their everyday lives.
Author of the Australian report, Stuart Taylor, noted that while the findings in the health report were confronting, they were not unsurprising, either.
“Unfortunately, it is all too common to miss the signs of burnout until they’re already there, but the long-term consequences of “overdoing it” can be damaging to our work life — resulting in a lack of focus and engagement, poor time management, and heightened worry and anxiety. “
He spoke of emotional ‘spillover’ where workplace stress lead to major effects on the lawyer’s personal life.
“Over time, spillover can give way to “crossover”, where higher exhaustion levels begin to impact on workplace performance, eventually leading to burnout. This was confirmed in our own study released in 2018 which revealed that fatigue was the highest factor related to burnout or, inversely, to resilience.”
The good news for lawyers is that resilience as a defense against stress and its related problems is not innate, but rather a learnt competence that can be purposefully built and skillfully maintained.
“In our 2018 study, we found professional services had only average resilience but were very responsive to interventions aimed at building resilience. This means that legal professionals who invest in building their own personal resilience are more likely to be able to master stress and prevent the onset of burnout.”
Establish a boundary between work and home life, which involves the following:
1. Funnel negative stress into something productive. Too often, we reserve our worst behaviour for those we care about the most. Going for a run or cooking dinner for the family can be healthy ways to channel the negative energy boiling under the surface and avoid any unpleasant outbursts.
2. Catch, check, then change. One of the most effective things we can learn is how to reframe our thinking to avoid “thinking traps” that lead to unhelpful responses and emotional spillover. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your attitude into a more constructive and beneficial response.
3. Express gratitude. Take time every evening to appreciate and celebrate the positive things that happened in the day. The simple act of recalling and magnifying the positives will mean your focus is no longer on deadlines and work stress, allowing you to channel your energy towards hobbies or personal relationships.
4. Engage with family and friends. Take the time to maintain healthy and emotionally stimulating relationships outside of work and explore ways to connect with people in meaningful ways. For example, go for a nice walk after work or eat a meal with friends or family as often as possible.
5. Get into a structured sleep habit. Aim for seven to eight hours a night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on the weekend). A good sleep routine can be a welcome boost to those who continually function at a fast pace and high-performance level.
6. Divide your day into segments. Allocate time for certain work tasks, time to move your body and time for mental breaks.
7. Find a way to be active every day. You can stretch, stand up or take a walk around the block. This is also a great tool to help you refocus. Just 30 minutes a day can work wonders for your brain and increase your resilience long-term.
8. When in doubt, breathe out. Controlled breathing can help you improve your cognitive performance, effectively manage stress and help you become more resilient by improving concentration, increasing creativity and improving productivity to help you power through.
The likely pressures in legal life will not cease, but having appropriate defenses against the unhealthy side effects will lead to greater fulfilment and greater productivity as well.
Source: Law.com; LawyersWeekly