Why are lawyers so stressed and how can we promote wellness in our legal academies and the legal profession?

With the 2015 National Wellness for Law forum hosted by ANU Legal Workshop in Canberra kicking off today, it’s a timely reminder that stress management is as important as ever in an industry which demands strength and resilience from its members.

Lawyers and law students, tell me this: have you ever felt ill and rushed off to see a medical practitioner only to discover that you’re in perfectly good health but a tad on the “stressed’ or “anxious” side of things?

Well, I have and I am pretty certain some, if not all, of you may be in the same position (either that or I am a hypochondriac which is also entirely possible).

Suffering from fatigue, headaches and numbness in my arms during a particularly stressful work period in legal practice, I decided to visit my local GP. Convinced I had either DVT, a serious neurological disorder or that perhaps I was having a prolonged stroke, my diligent doc performed all manner of tests and came back to let me know that everything was, well, perfect.

“What?” I ask, having worked myself up into a hypochondriac state of frenzy about my poor health.

Yep, perfect, he says. Liver? Lovely. Kidney? Kicking along.  Heart – like a steady beating drum. Blood sugar levels, cholesterol, blood pressure – tick, tick, tick. After peeing into cups and being sucked of my blood, I was bloody well fine. So what did Doc say about these glowing results? “Do you ever take holidays?”, he said. A bit like the IT consultant version of “Have you tried turning your computer on and off?”

We’ve all been there before: when work stress completely takes hold and begins to affect our mental, emotional or physical health. And, unfortunately, lawyers appear to be in this unhappy or anxious state all too often. At the ninth annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation lecture on 23 October 2014, Her Honourable Justice Virginia Bell referred to “unhealthily high levels of anxiety and depression within our profession”. So with this in mind, the term ‘work-life balance’ has taken on new significance: lawyers need to get serious about stress management and they need to do it now.

Here’s our 6 top tips for managing stress, including valuable insights from our resilience expert, Steven Colligan.

  1. Communicate and Connect

If feelings of isolation are one of the primary triggers for anxiety and stress, then the answer must be this: connect with others, communicate with your colleagues, go for a walk and a chat with a friend, find people who share your interests outside of work.

Steven Colligan, Director of Emovare, a company specialising in leadership training and employee engagement, believes that connection is key to stress management. “Connect with good friends, family, children, and laugh. Try and enjoy the moment! If you can, share your thoughts concerns with a trusted person.”

  1. Laugh

As reported in Lawyers Weekly in September 2012, Jackie Curran, a former legal practitioner who left her high stress career to set up Laughter Lawyer (a company that offers laugher yoga, combining yoga breathing and laughing exercises), cites laughter as a powerful tool to dissolve stress.

While Curran admits that “laughter isn’t the answer to everything”, she told Lawyers Weekly that legal professionals can enjoy a happier working life through laughter yoga.

“We can transform how we feel and how we deal with life,” she said. “Laughter is a way to switch off from work and clients … we take on a lot of responsibility and anything we can do to lift that off for a while is a good thing.”

  1. Rest and Relax

In its 2013 paper regarding the toll of not taking regular work breaks (or not returning from prolonged work breaks) on the Australian workforce, the Australia Institute reported that more than half – around six million people – of its survey respondents did not take all their annual leave in 2012.

Further, more than one in five of the respondents, equivalent to around 3.8 million workers, reported that they don’t usually take a lunch break. Inevitably, as the study shows, forgetting to take proper breaks leads to workplace stress, absenteeism and decreased productivity.

So to avoid burnout, a bit of R&R is essential, including taking that annual leave and stepping out for a relaxing lunch. Steven, who has been instrumental in running stress management and resilience workshops with College of Law in New Zealand, agrees: he recommends rest and meditation as his top stress management technique.

“Pause and take a deep breath from the diaphragm. Make sure you take a break away from your desk and breathe,” says Steven.

Stress Guide 2

  1. Exercise and Eat Well

In a 2008 photographic exhibition by NSW’s senior Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, entitled ‘Legal Chameleons’, Crown Prosecutor, Lui Lungo, was shown barefoot and bewigged in the lotus position, doing yoga to relieve the daily stress of trial work. Even those in busy, high stress roles need to incorporate exercise into their routine – in fact, they are the ones that often need it the most.

Whether it is yoga or pilates, or more intense forms of exercise like CrossFit or boxing, Steven advises lawyers to “get some regular exercise. It only has to be 15 – 20 minutes a day, such as walking, gardening, or swimming.”

Too many people say they don’t have time but most of us would admit that 20 minutes each day is achievable if we turn off the TV or get off social media and really put our minds to it.

  1. Set Boundaries

It’s easy to sit looking at your Inbox all day, waiting for emails to pop in like exploding bombs so you can read them and either a) ignore them, or b) respond to them. But this reactive state is time consuming, unproductive and tiring! Batch your emails, mark out time to focus on an important task without interruptions and set boundaries in your professional life. If you want to be home at a certain time to say goodnight to your kids, let it be known to those who work with you.

The same goes with your personal life – you don’t always need to take that phone call or respond to that email. You might want a tech-free or unplugged Sunday, as advocated by Oprah in her recent book “The Things I Know For Sure”. Setting boundaries will make you feel happier, less stressed and more in control of your life.

  1. Learn Resilience

Having worked one on one with individuals to build resilience and facilitated workshops in conjunction with the NZ College of Law, University of Auckland and several law and accountancy firms, Steven is firmly of the view that resilience is one of the most critical skills in the legal profession.

“Many of the skills that are needed, and trained in, to be a successful lawyer like prudence, cautiousness, skepticism and critical thinking lend towards a more pessimistic outlook. Pessimism does not foster happiness or a positive mental wellbeing and many lawyers struggle to contain their pessimistic thinking styles to the office,” says Steven.

In recognition of this important skill, the NSW College of Law has now collaborated with five major national law firms (Allens Linklaters, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and King & Wood Mallesons) to form Resilience@law, an initiative aiming to take a leadership role in raising awareness and understanding of the nature and impact of stress, depression and anxiety across the legal profession.

Steven encourages these initiatives and believes resilience should be part of our core legal training.

“Resilience is vital in the law profession to enable long term sustainable careers. It allows individuals to gain balance, perspective and remain engaged. Resilience can be learnt and with practice built. The ability to bounce back, navigate the ups and down and manage stress permits individuals to have more rewarding relationships and careers.”

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try out some of our stress management tips. This guide does not cover the field entirely as it is a complex topic but following these tips is a good way to refocus and start looking after yourself so you can look after clients too.

And if you can’t remember to exercise, eat well, rest and relax from time to time, then at least remember to take a well-deserved vacation every now and again: it’s not only crucial to health maintenance, it’s what the doctor ordered.

Resources and Contacts:

Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au

Resilience@law: Visit www.collaw.edu.au

Black Dog Institute: blackdoginstitute.org.au

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