In the second of our series on stress in the legal profession, Elizabeth Rimmer looks at how you can identify the causes and symptoms of stress, and how to manage stress in your own working lives
We can all get stressed at times. We all react differently to pressure: what stresses me might not stress you. And not all stress is bad – it can be motivating. However, serious and prolonged stress can be very upsetting and lead to physical and mental health concerns.
Stress is by far the most common reason for calls to the LawCare helpline. Many working or studying in the legal sector have a driven, perfectionist personality that makes them more prone to stress. They often work long hours in pressured situations, and believe they should always be in control. Feeling unable to cope with work can be particularly difficult.
We at LawCare know that there is very low awareness of the support and services available to those in the legal community, and that there is stigma attached to talking about mental health issues.
We also know from our experience that very often, lawyers don’t notice the signs of stress. These include:
- sleep deprivation
- physical changes – including headaches, skin complaints, frequent colds, aching muscles and digestive problems
- drinking and smoking
- comfort eating or skipping meals
- mood swings
- panic attacks – symptoms include feeling sick, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating and experiencing a sense of unreality.
It is important to take steps to control stress before it overwhelms. There may be little that can be done to change external pressures, but they can be dealt with. The first stage in dealing with stress is to identify the source in order to plan a strategy. Common issues identified by LawCare callers include job insecurity and lack of status; impossible targets; unsupportive colleagues or having no friends at work; long, antisocial or inflexible hours; lack of support or supervision; and overwhelming responsibilities or difficulties at home.
Keeping a stress diary over two or three weeks may help to identify what is causing the stress. Writing down feelings, including any physical symptoms, and connecting them to what was happening in work at the time, can help identify clues to stress.
Another good tip is to talk about it; don’t stay silent. Legal professionals in particular may feel it’s a sign of weakness to admit they aren’t coping, but it’s better to address problems early, before they get out of control. Talking informally to a trusted colleague or supervisor can be helpful. Referring to the stress diary can help to identify triggers for stress or aspects of work that are overwhelming.
Many of our callers tell us that their employers are unsympathetic. But when the stress escalates and perhaps becomes a problem, partners, colleagues and supervisors say they have been unaware of the situation and would have offered support if they had known. Make sure they know.
Some other helpful tips to manage stress include the following.
- Try to be objective: ask yourself why you are letting things get to you.
- Talk to someone you trust.
- Prioritise: don’t over commit; learn to say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t do that until next week unless I drop something else’.
- Use your full holiday entitlement and take a lunch break and short breaks during the day.
- Do one thing at a time; break complex tasks down into manageable chunks.
- Eat healthily, exercise, and avoid alcohol and smoking.
- If you have a panic attack, try to keep calm, slow your breathing and wait for it to pass.
- Think through your options: should you change job or consider a different career?
- If stress does overwhelm, stop, breathe deeply and slowly work through this list of questions.
- What is the worst thing that could happen if I didn’t do this?
- Will this still matter next month?
- Would I feel better about this if I broke it down into smaller sections and tackled it a piece at a time?
- Must this be done now, or can I delay it until I am feeling better about it?
- Can I pass this on to someone else?
- Am I trying to do too many things at once?
- Would talking to someone about this make me feel better?
- Do I need a holiday / good night’s sleep before I tackle this?
To find out more about positive strategies to help manage stress, and practical resources on stress management and workplace wellbeing, visit www.lawcare.org.uk.
The law is a rewarding and stimulating career. LawCare wants to get the legal community talking about mental health and wellbeing so that lawyers can lead fulfilling, and healthy, professional lives.