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This is why religious people are generally more resilient than atheists

Lawyer resilience, pot plants and genetics

Lawyer resilience, pot plants and genetics


Dr Bob Murray enlightens firm leaders on how they can boost lawyers' resilience after covid-19

Working for law and other professional service firms throughout the world (mostly virtually at present), nearly all of them talk to us about the great changes wrought by the pandemic to their working practices – and even their business model.

Yet, one of the interesting things that we’ve noticed is that mostly what has occurred has been a continuation and intensification of developments that began long before. Four main trends stand out:

  • Remote working.
  • Increasing dehumanisation.
  • The pressure to do more with less.
  • Increasing stress, depression and burnout.

All of these are leading to a lessening of resilience. One interesting piece of research found that the rate of work stress among lawyers was increasing by 70 per cent every four years – and that study was completed before covid-19 struck.

In 2019, I did a study for an Australian state law society. One of the results was that over 65 per cent of solicitors in that state experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder a year; and over a third of them seriously contemplated suicide during the same period.

Most of the solicitors I surveyed worked in small to medium-sized practices.

Clearly this level of stress and mental ill health is unsustainable. But the same can be said of the other trends. We’re simply not designed for any of them.

Easy in theory

Law leaders ask me, as a psychologist and a behavioral neurogeneticist, to help them make their people more resilient. Why, they ask, should it be so difficult?

The answer is that resilience is easy in theory and difficult in practice. It’s easy because you simply have to make your firms function more in line with what I call our human ‘design specs’.

Largely, this involves doing things that we were genetically designed to do in ways that we were genetically designed to do them. The stress will lift and resilience will magically occur.

Yet it’s difficult because law leaders and firm partners are not willing to make the changes and institute the behaviours which would make resilience possible. Work has to be at least somewhat in line with our DNA.

That doesn’t mean that partners should take up their spears and hunt woolly mammoths in the alleyways of the Temple. Though the process might be fun, the rewards might be rather thin.

It’s also true that some people are naturally more resilient than others – either through genetics or upbringing. Research shows that those attracted to certain professions usually don’t, for a number of reasons, fall into those categories. Law is one of them.

No matter what you do and no matter your genetics or upbringing, studies show that there are four sure-fire elements that create greater resilience. These four pillars of resilience are work you enjoy; praise; people who support you; and spirituality/nature.

Work that you enjoy and having fun doing it – In practice, this means having a feeling of competence and accomplishment, achieving success and learning new things. That last point is important because the brain is a learning machine. Once we stop learning the brain begins dying.

We need a constant stream of new input, new ways to satisfy our curiosity, to have a healthy cognitive system to promote resilience and delay or prevent the onset of dementia.

Praise – Human beings need five instances of praise or acknowledgement each day to be resilient. This can be praise for what we have done or achieved, praise for our effort or ingenuity (the how of what we do) or statements showing that we are valued by the group we belong to or an individual who is important to us.

In almost all law firms there is scant praise. That’s a pity because, according to research by Gallup, organisations which have a culture of praise are 20-25 per cent more productive and profitable than those that do not.

Supportive people – Humans have four prime needs: food and drink; shelter and clothes; reproductive success and sex and supportive relationships. Most of us need the first three to a greater or lesser extent. We can live without sex, for example.

Some of us need more nourishment than others. Our shelter need only be temporary, and that need is climate dependent. But no human can survive without other humans to support them – the need for supportive people around us is embedded deep within our DNA.

To be resilient we need to be surrounded by people who have our back. We need to feel supported and valued.

Spirituality and nature – Let’s consider this in more depth.

What is spirituality?

Neuroscientists will tell you that spirituality is connected to a part of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL). The PSPL is heavily involved in the analysis and integration of higher-order visual, auditory, and somaesthetic information.

It helps us define where we are in space; it helps us to differentiate ourselves from the external world. When we meditate, when we become absorbed in music, enjoyable company or even work (being ‘in the flow’, as the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it) or when we contemplate the divine, there is less activity in the PSPL. We lose our sense of self in our absorption.

To be resilient, science tells us, we must have periods of this kind of loss of self. This is why religious people are generally more resilient than atheists (I’m an agnostic).

Being in nature provides the same sort of experience. But the nice thing about nature is that you don’t necessarily have to be in the wild to get the benefit (though you become more resilient if you can spend time in the wilderness).

Studies have shown that even potted plants around the office, or pictures depicting scenes of nature, can help increase resilience. A view from the window showing a park, trees or a water view can have the same effect.

Like relational support, the need to be connected with nature and spirituality is embedded deep within us. All the earliest religions, and many of the non-Judeo-Christian ones today, celebrated aspects of nature in their deities in their spiritual practices. Without that connection we become depressed and are unable to be resilient.

What next?

Our genetics can guide us to our resilience. But we have to realise that many of the ways that we work and live are contrary to our design specs.

We cannot be resilient working away from our workplace tribe or if our work becomes depersonalised through over-reliance on machines and AI.

We can’t be resilient if more is expected of us than we are able, for whatever reason, to deliver; or if we’re denied praise and acknowledgement or if we’re stripped of even the most rudimentary connection with the natural world. Yet in many, maybe most, law firms all over the world each of these is the rule.

Firm leaders wonder why their lawyers are not as resilient as they would like them to be.

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services. For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research

Alicia Fortinberry is principal at Fortinberry Murray