The legal profession is reported by the Health and Safety Executive as one of the most stressful occupations in the UK. This matters. Stress can cause mental health issues to develop or worsen and it can significantly impact on performance. It is not all bad news though as stress can be a positive force, helping individuals to push through long hours or meet tough deadlines. However, when stress becomes overwhelming, it can be damaging to individuals and to firms, leading to mental and physical sickness, a lack of morale, a desire to take on additional responsibility, or worse.
Don’t people know what they are getting into when they pursue a career in the law though? Why shouldn’t it be okay to work those long hours, for example? It’s their choice after all. Well, it matters very much. Long working hours result in a reduced cognitive capacity. There is a reason there are strict limits to the hours many employees in aviation and transportation are permitted to work. After 40 hours worked in a week, humans get tired and start to make mistakes. However, in the legal profession the impact of fatigue is less obvious. Working long hours can be regarded as an heroic act… a virtue that shows how committed you are, that might just give you and your firm the edge in the super competitive environments in which many in law work.
However, the risk is tunnel vision, rigid thinking, and less ability to reason… all critical skills for those that are trying to solve problems, deal with clients, or develop new ideas to solve a particularly difficult case. Sure, we can do process-orientated tasks, operating on automatic pilot, but when it comes to the more complex issues, such as the ones faced by those in the legal profession, things become a little more difficult. Interestingly, the Junior Lawyers Division found that 53% of respondents to their survey had nearly made a mistake due to being stressed and 36% had made a mistake.
So dealing with stress is not simply about doing the right thing for individuals. It makes perfect business sense too. And there is much that can be done by firms to address this. The publication of the Law Society’s Supporting Wellbeing in the workplace guide, for example, highlights some of the steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of mental ill-health. Here are some other practical ideas and methods for tackling the challenge:
Most people who are struggling to cope hide it, sometimes even from themselves. 66% of lawyers say they would be concerned about reporting feelings of stress to their employer because of the stigma involved. Nobody wishes to be seen as a weak link in the chain of a professional practice. One of the most valuable things you can do is create an environment where honest and informed conversations about this subject can take place.
Educate staff about mental health, ways of supporting those that disclose that they are struggling, and what stress is and how it differs from pressure. While delivering sessions that address these issues in law firms, I have found there is a real desire to help colleagues, but less clarity around what actions and conversations help. Seminars and workshops can really help address this. As a minimum efforts should be made to encourage open conversations at all levels to help create a workplace where discussions around stress and wellbeing are a normal part of doing business.
Help staff learn how to spot and take action to reduce stress, and practical ways of becoming more resilient to the pressures of working in the legal profession. My own seminars and coaching help lawyers recognise the value of self-care, the need for a healthy relationship with stress, the ability to recognise warning signs in themselves early on, and the knowledge and skills needed to take action and head off a potential crisis. Another method is to highlight the dangers of perfectionism and how this can impact on wellbeing. This has been the theme of some of the work I have carried out with some University of Oxford Colleges as it presents, paradoxically, a very real risk to performance and emotional wellbeing. Other content could usefully include:
• Managing setbacks and disappointments, when things do not go the way we had hoped for.
• Tools and strategies to regulate emotion and manage unhelpful thinking.
• Lifestyle choices such as prioritising sleep, exercise, nutrition and hydration, meditation, maintaining hobbies and interests, connecting with others, time management, and the need to manage relationships with the phone and inbox.
For any employee in the midst of a demanding case or higher-than-normal volume of work, a simple “How are you doing? Anything I can do to help?” can begin to make them feel their experience is understood and the door is open to a conversation around what action can be taken to help them retain that all-important sense of control. The aim is to ensure that it is okay to be honest about not always having the answer, needing to seek advice and guidance from time to time, and to reach out for help when workload demands are overwhelming, all of which should be framed as a strength rather than a weakness.
Support can also help individuals deal with vicarious trauma. My work with social workers over the years has focused on the importance of learning the skills to deal with the unavoidable emotional reactions to and/or involvement with clients’ emotions. This is an overlooked area in the law. Emotions are contagious, so we need to learn ways of managing how the distress of others makes us feel so that it does not impact negatively on our own emotional health.
Additionally, for those with a strong interest in this area, it is worth taking a look at the Management Standards for Stress and the Management Competencies for Preventing and Reducing Stress at Work. The Wellness Action Plan is another useful tool, particularly for those that have disclosed a mental health issue and when helping an individual return to work after a period of absence due to mental ill-health.
The problem of stress in the legal workplace is not going to go away. These steps will begin to help address the challenge and encourage healthier working practices, for the good of staff, clients and the firm. Remember, to do law well, you need to be well.