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Stress in Law: Part 2 – Seven simple steps to make things better

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 3 May 2016

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In Part Two of their three-part series, Systemic Coach Zita Tulyahikayo and leading barrister James Pereira QC discuss simple steps that can be taken in daily life to alleviate stress, and the need for deeper insights in order to bring about lasting change.

This week we consider some simple steps that can be taken in your daily life to minimize the affects of stress. They are based on knowledge of what has worked within the legal profession.

When we say “simple” steps, we mean that they are simple to understand. Whether they prove simple to adhere to is another matter. One of the things that people often fail to understand is that lasting change can be impossible to achieve without a deeper insight into the underlying causes of why you are living your life in a particular way in the first place. No amount of self-help books and magazine articles will help you, if you do not address these underlying issues.

In Part Three of our series, we will look to the need for deeper insights and understanding to create lasting change. For now, here are seven steps that you might like to try.

Take responsibility for yourself

The fundamental first step in any move for change is to take responsibility for yourself.

Ultimately, we are all free agents and at liberty to act as we please. Nobody owns your life nor can they dictate how you should live it. Sadly, for many people, it is easier to blame their unhappiness on their circumstances, as this avoids the challenge of taking responsibility for themselves.

If you are stressed and unhappy at work, but find that you are always justifying to yourself the reasons why, or if you start telling yourself that you would change “if only” this or “if only” that, the chances are that you are preventing change by avoiding the step of taking responsibility for yourself.

This needs to stop, if you are sincerely interested in being the best version of yourself that you can be

Avoid quick fixes

This may sound obvious. But the use of drink and recreational drugs, and other seemingly benign quick fixes, is a common response to stress and the unresolved problems that lurk behind it. The legal profession is no exception in its widespread use of this potentially destructive solution.

It is pure fantasy to think that it will help you. If anything the long term affects of choosing this option are highly destructive, not just to your health and quality of life, but also to your professional standing.

You are not required to live the life of a saint, but be cognisant of how quickly the quick fix can have much wider and profound consequences.

Forget perfectionism

Perhaps the most damaging notion that those who enter the law are trained to believe is that they must be perfect in order to succeed. Forget this at once. This is just a story.

Perfectionism creates more problems than it could ever seek to resolve. This is because it leads to unrealistic expectations of yourself and others, which are ultimately unobtainable. Perfectionists are rarely, if ever, satisfied with their own performance, or the performance of others within their team. For the most part, perfectionism is driven by unresolved issues of anger and rage.

Perfectionism and perfectionists reinforce performance anxiety for themselves and others. Expectations set in the sky can rarely be reached. This in turn can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth when, inevitably, you fall short of your own expectations.

The feeling that you “should” have done better or differently can also obstruct your ability to learn from your experiences, because your self-evaluation fails to see the positive or the route to improvement. Instead it is premised on the assumption that you already knew how to perform better (hence the “I should have…”) and that you failed in some way by not doing so.

In a team, this can lead to a culture of fear of criticism, which stifles positive contributions from team members, and leads to underperformance from the team.

So ditch the notion of perfectionism. A perfect outcome does not exist. Aim to do the best you can in the circumstances you face. You can expect nothing more of yourself or others.

Proactively manage all of your time

Lawyers have two dimensions to their work lives. First, their “public” work when they are engaged in client facing meetings, court appointments, work lunches and the like.

Secondly, their “private” work, which is time spent alone: researching, preparing and thinking. Many lawyers are over worked because their daytime diaries become filled with their public work, leaving their private work to be slotted in around their daytime commitments.

There can be several reasons for this. First, work that can be done alone is vulnerable to being pushed into antisocial hours because it requires the participation of no-one but yourself.

Secondly, and related to this, legal culture perpetuates the idea that “proper” lawyers should be prepared to sacrifice their out of hours time for the good of the firm or the client. This means that out of hours time – your own personal time and what should be your free time – becomes undervalued, making it vulnerable to exploitation by work.

One way of addressing this is to proactively manage your time so that all your work commitments – public and private – are booked out in your diary within the normal working day. This gives everyone a full picture of your work commitments. Diarising your private work will also help to ensure that it is given a value equal to your public work. This in turn will make it easier to protect your private work time. This will support you in keeping your out of hours time free from work.

Manage yours and your clients’ expectations

A lot of stress is created by having unrealistic expectations of your turn around time for work, and the overall amount of work that you can accomplish. This in turn leads to anti-social working hours, lack of time for your life outside of work, sleep deprivation and ultimately poor performance and poor health.

Further, if you pack your diary with an unrealistic amount of work, you tend to end each day without completing the tasks you set yourself. This in turn can lead to sense of failure and low self-esteem.

Manage your work sensibly. Be realistic about what you can achieve and by when you can achieve it. In this way you will find that your daily work targets are met, and your self-esteem increases. You will actually feel better and have a greater sense of achievement. The quality of your work is likely to benefit from having proper time dedicated to it.

Moreover, managing your work in this way enables you to be realistic with clients about when they can expect work to be done, while avoiding the stress of having to meet a series of restrictive or seemingly impossible deadlines.

Understand that your job is just your job. It is not your life

We are so used to expressions such as “Life at the Bar” or “Life in a City firm”. But your job is just your job, it is not your life. You can have more than one job, but you cannot have more than one life.

The problem with treating your job as though it were your life is that when your job becomes stressful, your life is equally stressful; when you feel your job is going badly, your life also goes badly.

It is important to keep alive and cultivate interests outside work. In this way you are able to have a sense of identity, self-worth and engagement in life that does not depend upon work.

That way, when work is stressful, life need not be stressful.

Keep life larger than your work.

Do not suffer in silence

Finally, do not suffer in silence.

Unfortunately, the legal profession is beset with the notion that showing signs of stress is equivalent to admitting that you are not up to the job. This is nonsense.

Seeking help for stress does not mean that you are not up to the job. Quite the opposite. If you seek help, you are demonstrating that you are a responsible professional who understands that stress can adversely impact on well-being and inhibit performance. You are taking steps to ensure that you continue to contribute effectively to your professional role in a sustainable way. This can only be a good thing as far as your employer or your clients are concerned.

Your inner voice that lets you know when things are getting out of hand is there to protect you. It knows you and you should trust it. Beware of the inner critic. Do not suffer in silence.

Lasting change

As we said at the start of this article, lasting change can be difficult to bring about unless you address the underlying causes of your stress.

For example, if your background involved living in a family where you were dependent upon others or others were dependent upon you, you may be used to living in a situation that you feel you cannot change. If that is the case, then you may unwittingly feel more comfortable complaining about overwork and stress rather than taking responsibility for your self and changing your situation.

Likewise, if your upbringing has led to you feeling insecure about yourself, this is likely to lead to insecurities about your work position or your professional ability, so that you always feel the need to prove yourself. If that is the case, you are unlikely to be able to effectively manage your time or say “no” to excessive work.

These and other underlying issues affect many people. It is only by addressing them that you can bring about lasting change

Next time…

Next time we consider how you can bring about lasting change and achieve sustainable life-work balance, by addressing the underlying causes of stressful patterns of behaviour.

The authors welcome any contact on issues arising from this article. Their details are and