Stress: the invisible pandemic
Stick to your boundaries and avoid falling into an unhealthy work trap, says Alicia Fortinberry
As a psychologist and executive coach, I work with lawyers around the world at all stages of their career, from solicitors to chief executive officers.
Increasingly, many of them are in real trouble. They’re more unhappy and less physically and mentally healthy. Yet when I first met them, most were energetic and enthusiastic about their careers.
Depression, severe anxiety, burnout and stress-related physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are increasingly common, particularly in lawyers. This is true not only in the areas most afflicted by covid-19, as you might expect, but even in places such as Australia where the pandemic has largely been brought under control.
These issues reflect an overall increase in stress and decrease in mental health. For example, work stress worldwide rose 200 per cent in the 10 years before covid-19. However, lawyers are particularly prone to stressors like overwork, worry and negativity with their accompanying health issues.
Take John: when I first met him several years ago, he was an energetic young partner at a global law firm.
He enjoyed using new technology to solve problems and finding novel ways to attract clients across jurisdictions. He was intellectually curious and empathetic and enjoyed supporting his clients beyond technical legal issues.
John also spent considerable time and effort looking after and developing solicitors in his broader team, as well as his own. Although I admired his generosity and values, I was concerned about his sustainability.
Despite working long hours in the stressful environment of his firm, John enjoyed spending time with his newly-arrived second daughter.
He and his wife, who also works in a prestigious global law firm, took turns walking the girls to school and pre-school, preparing family meals and putting the girls to bed. They planned fun outings and visited parks on the weekends.
We hadn’t seen each other for a while, until a few months ago when he asked for my help; and so we met.
Although still highly effective and now even more admired and sought-after, he looked different. In addition to the years of overwork, numerous high-profile and demanding matters and a drop-off in resources coupled with sleep deprivation had taken their toll.
He was pale and heavier, spoke slowly and sometimes stopped and stared out the window. His interaction with his family seemed largely reduced to often stressful negotiations around logistics; and when not working, he rarely had the energy to leave the house.
He had recently been diagnosed with three serious underlying health conditions. The old picture on his work identity pass hanging on a lanyard around his neck seemed to belong to another person.
And then there’s Sally. A fast riser in a global firm, she and her partner (also a lawyer) enjoyed eating out, visiting art galleries and exploring the countryside around London and abroad.
Even then, despite her varied interests she was known to drive herself and her team hard. Her success has brought an even greater workload.
Her three-year-old son has health problems and she’s saddled with critical in-laws. She is perceived to be consumed by work (even by law firm standards), brittle with some of her team and highly competitive towards other partners.
Whether head down at home or in the office, she takes few breaks and spends little time socialising or even talking to colleagues, except about specific matters. A few months ago, she (and her practice head) reached out to me with concerns.
A relatively young but highly successful head of a global M&A practice at a rising UK national firm had responsibilities and promotions heaped onto her. At the same time her fee-related remuneration rating has soared.
Anne was always a hard worker. Drudging long hours and sometimes pulling several consecutive all-nighters on transactions, while keeping up her administrative responsibilities for the group, are not unusual.
She struggles to find enough time to care for her team and her children, although her mother lives with her and helps. Anne is clear-eyed about the dangers ahead: “I still worry that I’m not as good as people think I am. I love my work but worry about the increasing pressure.
“Every time my numbers and rating rise, I’m given a higher target to meet. The more I do the more is expected and the further there is to fall. I’m not sure how much more I can take.”
Avoid the trap
So how do you prevent finding yourself in the same situations and traps as John, Sally and Anne in a world of increasing uncertainty and stress?
In spite of (or perhaps because of) their success, each of these partners lost or is in danger of losing what humans most need: the kind of connection, support and acceptance they can depend on.
To keep climbing the ladder – and there is no going down if you want to maintain your standing and respect in a law firm – they had to keep narrowing their focus until almost all that mattered was the next task and enough money to make up for all their family had sacrificed.
So, what can you do?
First, it’s vital to know and stick to your boundaries. A large firm recently approached me about running groups for the growing number of female associates who don’t seem to be keen on making partner, or even in some cases, staying in the firm. The stated problem is long hours.
That’s certainly a potential danger to health and satisfaction. I will help them clarify their individual boundaries and communicate these. I will also help their practice groups and the firms set norms and agreements on what are realistic and sustainable demands.
However, I think the problem goes even deeper. It’s the tunnel vision people like Anne, John and Sally feel they have to develop in order to get through all the work.
Every day seems like it was in college just before exams, when you don’t dare relax your vigilance or take up opportunities for enjoyment, relaxation or friendship.
And it’s the last of those that are the most important. Without real connection there is no trust, and without trust there is no belonging, no support and no safety.
So, you tend to work harder, driven by increasing loneliness and fear to ensure you are seen to be necessary to colleagues, managers and the firm.
And as you progress, the fear of letting down not only the family of origin (which perhaps instilled the drive to succeed at all costs and the fear of failure) but perhaps current family or friends.
With each of these people, I worked on broadening their focus to make sure they were putting in the time, awareness and dialogue skills that would lead to mutually supportive and enjoyable relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
I helped them identify opportunities at home and work to give and receive affirmation and praise.
Praise greatly reduces stress and boosts both the physical and emotional immune systems by stimulating the brain to release the reward neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine. These combat damaging stress neurochemicals such as cortisol, which can cause heart attacks.
These lawyers learned how to set boundaries at work and clarify reasonable roles and responsibilities at home and with friends. Strengthening and maintaining these new habits is an ongoing task, but all are well on their way to more rewarding and healthy lives.
Staying well and finding pleasure in an increasingly unhealthy world is not easy. But that is a goal worthy of your focus.
Dr Alicia Fortinberry is principal at Fortinberry Murray fortinberrymurray.com