Dealing with Stress

LawCare helps lawyers deal with health issues that can be common in challenging business times.  Given everything that is going on in the conveyancing market we thought it would be appropriate to give LawCare some coverage.
What is stress? In technical terms, it is when the pressures experienced by the individual are perceived as exceeding their capacity to deal with them, in a situation where coping is considered important. A complex way of saying something simple – stress happens when you know that you can’t cope. Not all stress is bad. Without some stress, we wouldn’t achieve much, but the problem occurs when the stress builds up to such levels that it turns into distress.
Some people are naturally more able to cope with stress than others. Some solicitors thrive on it, while others go to pieces. It is important to remember that it is the perception of the individual concerned which is important. You may not consider a solicitor’s workload to be excessive or their working environment to be stressful, but they may nevertheless experience symptoms of stress. This does not mean that they are somehow weaker or less able than solicitors who would view the same circumstances as an easy challenge — on the contrary, they may work more conscientiously and methodically, ultimately with better results.
Stress can be a killer. Not only can it take a physical toll with illnesses such as heart disease, but it can also lead to mental illnesses such as depression, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. 80% of lawyers calling LawCare’s helpline about their alcoholism cite stress as the reason they began to drink to excess. All in all, stress can cost a high price in terms of professional careers, personal relationships and shattered families.
So why does it happen to solicitors? Studies have concluded that lawyers are at high risk from compulsive behaviour (i.e. overuse of alcohol, drugs, food) because of the type of personality attracted into the legal profession. Lawyers are most often hard driven A- type personalities who are also perfectionist, over conscientious, driven, competitive, ambitious, unable to delegate, status aware, highly aspirational individuals who find it hard to admit, even to themselves, that there are occasions when they can no longer do everything. The lawyers’ own thoughts and belief systems can aggravate this inability to ask for help. The beliefs that, for example,
“I must always be competent”
“I must always be in control of events and people”
“I must always be admired”
“Events must always turn out as I want them to”
“No one else could do this as well as I could, so I have to do it”
“Taking ‘down time’ or leaving the office earlier than others is a sign of weakness”.
These beliefs need to be challenged by the solicitor him/herself, and by managers, supervisors and partners. Such beliefs are unachievable and incorrect and serve only to add further stress to the individual lawyer perpetuating them, to his or her colleagues, the firm, and the profession as a whole.
There is little data available about the extent of the stress epidemic in the UK, but it is probably fair to assume that it is similar to that within the legal system in the USA, where studies by the Washington State Bar have shown that
12% of lawyers facing complaints or disciplinary action are clinically depressed
18% are subject to admitted addiction
75% of disciplinary cases involve alcohol abuse
and studies by the Oregon Bar Association have shown that
60% of disciplinary cases and 40% of negligence claims involve stress, depression and/or alcohol abuse on the part of the lawyers involved.
In the UK as a whole, it is known that stress and related issues are the second most common reason given for sickness absence, with up to 60% of those taking sick leave giving stress as the reason they are unfit for work. Whilst no statistics exist, LawCare’s experience seems to suggest that the legal profession has the opposite problem, with “presenteeism” an issue which needs to be addressed in many firms. Lawyers who have been working in an extremely stressful environment, and are showing the typical stress symptoms of irritability, inability to concentrate, extreme anxiety, digestive problems and muscle strain, are nevertheless continuing to come to work and to stay late into the evening trying fruitlessly to catch up.
A stressed lawyer is not a good lawyer. Stressed lawyers make mistakes which cost money, so it is in the interests of an employer to have an effective HR policy which takes account of the issue of stress, allowing for the different susceptibilities of staff.
The overall HR ethos should be focused on supporting individual members of staff with thorough induction for new staff, regular training and quality appraisals, opportunities for career development, clear and fair employment policies (including an effective, zero tolerance policy on workplace bullying), good grievance procedures and mentoring/support schemes. Most importantly, there should be no stigma attached to taking time off sick due to mental illness or stress, and “presenteeism” should be discouraged, with staff required to go home if they appear to be sick, or if they habitually work far beyond their required hours. Studies (including the Law Society Quality of Life Report) have shown that employees value things like flexible working time, good relationships with colleagues, and friendly and approachable management more than they do remuneration, so taking steps to ensure that your firm is a pleasant working environment can pay dividends in terms of staff loyalty and effectiveness. In addition, bear in mind that stress is a Health and Safety issue, and some employers have had to make large compensation payments to staff who suffered stress at work.
If stress is a problem, LawCare offers several resources which can help.
Lawyers, their families and staff who are suffering from stress and/or clinical depression, or who have other related emotional issues can calls the LawCare helpline for free and confidential support. The number to call is 0800 279 6888, and lines are open 9.00 a.m. — 7.30 p.m. on weekdays, 10.00 a.m. — 4.00 p.m. at weekends and Bank Holidays, 365 days a year. Posters, flyers and leaflets advertising the helpline service are available free from LawCare by phoning 01268 771333.
LawCare’s Anti-Stress Desktop Workbook is a small booklet which includes advice on time management, delegating, prioritising and learning to say No, all tools which can be very helpful in combating workplace stress. This can be issued free to all your employees, and includes details of the helpline service.
LawCare also issues several free publications about stress. “Back to the Beehive” advises both staff and employers in situations where a solicitor is away from work due to stress, and there is an 18 page information pack about stress and depression, the symptoms, consequences and treatment. These are available on our website (www.lawcare.org.uk), or can be posted or emailed by calling 01268 771333 or emailing [email protected]
LawCare’s Wellbeing Portal is an online tool to help lawyers take control of the stresses in their professional and personal lives by helping them to  identify, assess and manage their stress. This useful resource is completely confidential and is also available via the website.
LawCare offers free (except for expenses) CPD accredited workshops, seminars and presentations on the subject such as “Stress Recognition and Management” and “Time Management” and “Vicarious Trauma”. For more details, phone 01273 461861.
In the 21st century, it is unrealistic to expect to live or work without some element of stress, but what must be avoided is prolonged and high level stress. That ruins health, careers and relationships. If you, or someone you know, needs help, LawCare is there for you 365 days a year. Just pick up the phone and give us a call.
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