How to sustain the unsustainable: handling stress
Richard Reade considers coping strategies for lawyers in times of stress
Despite the long hours and relatively high rates of burn out within the legal profession, there is often still a lack of support for in house lawyers working under extreme pressure. Individuals can feel isolated and unsupported and despite the emergence of mental health programmes, much of the pastoral care seems to exist only after the event. Many countries face high inflation and weak economic growth. Companies face tighter profit margins and the inevitable large restructuring projects that follow will place great demands on in house teams. Those teams might already have suffered headcount reduction and remaining lawyers will be expected to absorb the new demands.
Ultimately, the best way to cope with unreasonable levels of working stress and hours that run into weekends and holidays is to avoid the situation. This might mean taking radical action. In 2023, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, admitted she no longer had “enough in the tank” to lead her nation and resigned.
A realistic assessment of whether you are in a position to carry on, or even take on more demands, is not only wise it is essential. You owe it to your employer, to your colleagues and, most importantly, to your loved ones. It is not suggested that lawyers resign but lawyers must take responsibility for their work lifestyle to prevent burn out.
The field of study of how stress affects physiology and psychology is vast and therefore only a few key messages are provided here. Some of those messages are already heavily discussed in society but there are others which are less well known.
Effects of stress
The Yerkes & Dodson theory states there is a relationship between stress and performance and that there is an optimal point corresponding to the level of stress versus the level of performance. This means that a certain amount of stress helps lawyers perform well and be productive, but in extreme situations with either very high levels of stress and/or prolonged stress, performance drops materially.
The research also shows that certain tasks are better undertaken during different stress levels. Difficult or complex tasks are more productively undertaken while least stressed, whereas simple tasks could readily be undertaken while levels of stress are high.
An obvious conclusion would be to save the complex tasks for a calm time of day when it is easier to think clearly and be more creative. Each of us has a preferred time of day depending on our body clocks. A more important lesson is not to reach the tipping point where legal teams are over worked for prolonged periods and become less and less productive no matter how hard they are pushed or incentivised. The key point is not only to work hard but also to work smart and to deliver adequate resources to improve performance.
When considering how to cope with high levels of stress it is essential to recognise what happens if you do not learn how to cope. According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is characterised as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
An interesting theory notes that satisfaction does not diminish as dissatisfaction increases. In fact, they are independent of each other. Satisfaction commonly occurs with challenging work; recognition of achievements; responsibility; the opportunity to do something meaningful; involvement in decision making; and a sense of importance to the organisation.
Lawyers will try to appropriately manage their resources to ensure flexibility within their teams and absorb fluctuating levels of demand. If those resources are not sufficient then at the project planning stage, they will budget to recruit new lawyers for the life of the project. The cost of additional headcount can be allocated to the project rather than the company’s legal budget. Another option that might be available to multi-national companies (MNCs), is to increase legal capacity within low-cost jurisdictions. Mid-ranking lawyers can be particularly helpful and very cost efficient compared to most western jurisdictions.
Furthermore, taking the UK and the US as an example, jurisdictions like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan offer common law trained lawyers who might already have worked within western MNCs who have operations within those jurisdictions. The combination of low cost and relevant experience produce a proposition worth exploring. Another way to reduce pressure on the legal team (who are often expected to manage large projects) is to retain a professional project manager.
It is not unusual to find these managers already employed within the company and they can be tasked with running M&A projects or to prepare a listed company's annual report, working alongside the legal team. If resources and budget are not available then a careful conversation about the project timing might be wise. If other factors, together with timing, accumulate at an early stage then delay might become the obvious conclusion for the company’s management team.
Another area which changes under stress is communication style. Most people notice when someone is having a bad day but the effects and how that person reacts vary depending on the person. The most common psychometric tests for use in business environments measure psychological preferences for how people perceive the world and make decisions. Often these tests group people into types of personality. There are common themes in many of these type-based indicator tests which assess personalities. The best-known personality assessment is the MBTI instrument distributed by Myers-Briggs.
Most of these tests (including MBTI) state that different types of personality will behave differently when experiencing significant stress. To an extent, this can be cross referenced against other studies on personality types. For example, the more dominant MBTI personality types like ENTJs are more likely to be classed as ‘Type A’ personality types. These people are highly competitive and time urgent and can often be hostile and aggressive. Contrast these against types who are naturally more relaxed, patient and easy going like INFPs who are more likely to be classed as ‘Type B’ personalities.
Type A personalities are significant in the context of stress management because they often occupy positions of seniority. Therefore, knowing how to navigate them is important and can save significant anxiety. Most type-based personality tests give advice on how to do this. A snapshot is given below for how to manage different types of personality while they are under pressure. The snapshot can be used to recognise colleagues (including team members) and approach them appropriately while you or they are reacting to the effects of stress.
Dominant ‘Type A’ personalities (who are competitive, strong willed and demanding): Under pressure expect them to be aggressive, controlling, driving, overbearing and intolerant. Therefore, be bright, be brief and be gone! Focus on their goals. Be careful of their impatience and don’t interrupt them. Be direct and to the point. Expect yes and no answers. Make sure they feel in control and make sure you demonstrate early success in given tasks.
Highly sociable, sales type personalities (who are dynamic, demonstrative, enthusiastic and persuasive): Under pressure expect them to be hasty, indiscreet, manic, irritable and demanding. Therefore, don’t hold things back, conduct general high-level discussions (but don’t go into detail) and brainstorm ideas, then agree specifics and help them rationalise the situation, while allowing for emotional outbursts.
Caring, emotionally intelligent personalities (who are encouraging, open, patient, relaxed and selfless): Under pressure expect them to be silent, stubborn, reliant and over-cautious. Therefore, be supportive, allow time for them to think, ask them how they feel and be calm in your approach.
Detail orientated, analytical personalities (who are formal, questioning, precise and cautious): Under pressure expect them to be reserved, indecisive, suspicious, cold and reserved and to nit-pick. Therefore, be structured with your conversation, be clear and logical, one question at a time, don’t be flippant, be prepared to use external evidence to make your point. Let them analyse the facts and don’t push for answers too quickly.
It is common for individuals under pressure to use stimulants. These include (but are not limited to) caffeine, nicotine and refined carbohydrates (sugar). Eating sugar, for example, releases opioids and dopamine into the body. In nature, when a beneficial behaviour causes an excess release of dopamine, a pleasurable ‘high’ is felt and there is often a desire to re-experience it and so repeat the behaviour. However, eating sugar isn’t a beneficial behaviour. Whereas sugar is helpful in providing energy while exercising, the immediate rush of energy while working (late at night for example) is fleeting. The brief energy boost is quickly followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar. Having regular blood sugar swings leads to material fluctuations in energy levels at a time when most lawyers want to maintain steady constant levels. In fact, studies have found that consuming refined carbohydrates lowered alertness for 60 minutes and increased fatigue within 30 minutes. Clearly, a lowered state of alertness is not a luxury that lawyers can afford during peak times of workflow (and work demands might remain high for months). Later in this paper, suggestions are given on diet and what categories of food are likely to be helpful in times of pressure.
There are many research studies explaining the effects of caffeine, nicotine and illegal drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and micro doses of hallucinogens like LSD. During sustained periods of great pressure, it is not recommended that any of these are used as a stimulant. Admittedly, there are recent studies showing positive effects from caffeine (for example lowering blood pressure). These studies do not show the effects of high caffeine consumption during times of great pressure at work. It is important to understand what effects caffeine has on stress hormones and whether it increases those hormone levels unhelpfully. One study suggests caffeine consumption may be associated with stress, anxiety and depression. Therefore, although some lawyers benefit from using legal stimulants like caffeine and nicotine while experiencing normal workloads, there are other more sustainable and healthy ways to manage energy levels during times of abnormally high workloads.
Studies have shown that exercise (a beneficial behaviour) increases dopamine levels in the brain which decrease stress and even relieve depression. Exercise naturally regulates the hormonal imbalances that working long hours under pressure is likely to cause. Unlike artificial stimulants, the accumulation of exercise enhances the body’s natural ability to withstand demanding environments. The environment created by the pressure of a challenging legal project or an under resourced legal team, is precisely what these hormones can insulate lawyers against. Exercise includes many forms of movement such as cycling to work; walking/running to work (or part of the distance) and use of a gym near to work or home.
Exercising late at night can help lawyers remain alert and awake without needing caffeine. A short break that is taken to do press ups (or another easy to perform exercise like use of an abdominal roller or home weights) should produce enough hormones to stay awake longer and be more alert.
Daylight increases hormone levels (serotonin) and time spent with friends and loved ones releases another hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin can induce anti-stress like effects such as reduction in blood pressure and also reduction in the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone and it performs an essential function to enhance human performance in times of need. However, it must be switched off to allow the body’s systems to resume their normal activities. Long term activation of the hormone creates digestive problems, anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment together with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. As well as switching off cortisol, oxytocin increases various types of positive social interaction and promotes healing and growth
It is especially important during times of high stress to look after microbes in the gut. These microbes can enhance physiology, increase stamina and also resistance to stress. The microbes are assisted through diet. The effect of refined carbohydrate on the body has already been considered but what foods should be we focus on during periods of high stress? In her book 10% Human, Dr Alanna Collen notes that for every human cell in the body there are nine symbiotic microbes hitching a ride. Bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites contribute to the healthy functioning of the human body.
They are linked with a host of functions from digestion to mental health and connections have been found between microbes in the gut and functions of the brain. An imbalance of gut microbes (ie when there are more harmful microbes than beneficial ones) has been shown to cause inflammation linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Stress can reshape the gut bacteria’s composition through stress hormones (which include cortisol).
In turn, the gut bacteria release toxins and neurohormones that can alter behaviour and mood. According to Professor Tim Spector at Kings College London, the key to keeping gut microbes happy and healthy is eating as many plants as possible as well as fermented foods. These include nuts, seeds, pulses, whole grains, fruits and vegetables – on top of starchy staples such as potatoes or rice. Diversity cultivates a healthy microbiome. Kefir (fermented milk) in particular is cheap and easy to make. Spector compares the bacteria, fungi and viruses in our guts to a chemical plant. By itself, the human body produces roughly 20 gut hormones or chemicals. But with help from these microbes, thousands of additional hormones and chemicals are produced.
Some of those hormones include brain chemicals such as serotonin. Therefore, eating something similar to a Mediterranean diet – one high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and with less meat and dairy products – can increase gut microbiota and in turn improve resistance to stress. The emphasis is not on calorie control but merely changing what is eaten to include nutritionally dense foods (not to be confused with calorically dense foods high in calories). Therefore, if lawyers want to focus on their gut microbiota, then there is no need for them to go hungry but merely to think more carefully when they shop for food.
Another way to work in harmony with the body to enhance performance is through music. Studies have shown that there are changes in bioelectrical brainwave activity while listening to music. Different types of brainwaves indicate different states of the brain.
For example, very low delta frequencies (1-4Hz) are dominant during deep sleep. The Theta rhythm (4-8 Hz) is often observed during low levels of alertness and during mental calculations, use of working memory, error processing and meditation. Alpha rhythms (8-13 Hz) occur during either the awake-resting state or during concentration. Beta rhythms (>13 Hz) are usually associated with increased alertness. They occur during the awake-state and can be caused by stress, strong emotions and tension.
Brain waves can be altered by auditory stimuli. Neurologist Oliver Sacks noted that “our auditory systems [and] our nervous systems are tuned for music. Perhaps we are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.” Music that is personally liked by individuals enhances brain activity generally but especially across Beta and Alpha bandwidths.
Lawyers might need to work late at night or perform detail orientated tasks involving mental calculations during stressful times when their brain rhythms are operating at unhelpfully high frequencies. To appropriately perform the tasks, their brains need to be operating in a different frequency. Could music help change the brain frequency? Music therapy has been used in psychiatry to increase Alpha rhythms and reduce Beta activity in psychiatric patients.
The purpose is to help patients enter a state of tranquillity or to distract them from unpleasant feelings. This has allowed patient anxiety levels to drop. Use of music is not uncommon in the medical profession. It has been found that surgeons’ task performance can significantly be improved by music and music is commonly played in operating theatres.
For lawyers who enjoy music, it is recommended to try a selection of tunes when working to see if they enhance concentration. This is especially true for lawyers working late at night where music might revive an increasingly hazy and sleepy individual.
Self-sabotage is a pattern of thoughts and behaviours that people engage in, often without knowing, that create obstacles to achieving goals. Actions that are taken in the middle of a highly stressful project or late at night that seem necessary and sensible might later be considered as unnecessary or even unhelpful. However, Shirani Pathak a psychotherapist from California, notes that the behaviour is: “actually a protective mechanism created by your psyche in order to keep you safe from any potential danger or harm. What’s familiar to us is what our psyche considers safe… When we’re wading out into unfamiliar waters because we’re looking to make a change, it can trigger all of the alarm bells in our internal system that tell us: Danger! Danger!”
Self-sabotaging behaviour varies from person to person and varies depending on personality type. Examples include, procrastination, substance abuse, interpersonal strife and doing far more than needs to be done in a project. The behaviour is typically counterintuitive because it is an emotional and not a logical behaviour. Fear typically motivates self-sabotage behaviour and can manifest itself in, for example, unhealthy perfectionism (which is not unusual in senior lawyers). A severe inner critic can lead to unproductive behaviour due to a lawyer’s brain searching for potential problems to address so that they are protected from danger or criticism. Clearly, part of a lawyer’s job is to notice problems but not to the extent that they spend all their time searching for issues and not making progress or decisions. This behaviour might be responsible for what some people call ‘analysis paralysis.’
In times of high stress watch out for team members or even yourself, becoming hyper vigilant in your search for danger. Be careful of clinging to old problems and conjuring up new ones as way to prevent mental harm or damage to self-esteem. Signs that you might be self-sabotaging include you dwell on your mistakes; are intensely fearful of criticism; identify with your negative belief; refuse to seek help or support; do not set boundaries (with self and others); fail to appropriately communicate your expectations; and consistently prioritise others’ needs over your own or your team’s.
To avoid these negative behaviours try to: not depend on how other people define success unless the definitions are agreed as part of a formal goal setting process and goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, targets; when goal setting make sure the goal is not an imposition; pay attention to your own needs, mental health is just as important as physical health; get comfortable with validating and always be your biggest admirer and supporter.
Richard Reade is general counsel at Coats Group plc, UK
This article was originally published in the International In-House Counsel Journal, the Solicitors Journal's twin publication iicj.net