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The worsening work stress pandemic

The worsening work stress pandemic


Just as stress spreads like a contagion, so can wellbeing and resilience, as long as firms take the right steps to foster them, writes Dr Alicia Fortinberry

About three years ago, my colleague Dr Bob Murray picked up the phone and was asked to hold for President Barack Obama. The president wanted Bob and me to spearhead a new US initiative he felt strongly about: combating the work stress epidemic. The president was worried about the increasing impact work stress was having on health costs and the economy in general (currently reckoned to be $1tn annually), and the prediction, made by the Hudson Institute, that it would increase by 200 percent over the next ten years. He had heard about the work we were doing in that area. We put together a working paper and Congress allocated funds. Unfortunately, the challenges posed by the Affordable Care Act in the US put the kibosh on a number of innovative healthcare initiatives, including ours.

However, not only has the problem not gone away, but it is wreaking more havoc than ever before on every continent and in every industry. Law is only one of the businesses impacted, but claims a disproportionate effect in terms of depression (lawyers may not have the distinction of being the most depressed, as they claim, but they are up there). A study done in 2008 claimed that 40 percent of all lawyers in the US and the UK were clinically depressed. The situation now can only be worse.

And whereas before, stress was seen to affect most strongly people who were conveniently deemed 'fragile', we are now seeing top leaders nearly immobilised by the crushing demands of navigating their firms through tectonic change and uncertainty.

Why can't we get a handle on this devastating issue?

Root causes

The main reason is that businesses still don't understand the roots of the problem. They apply band aids to a major trauma. Yoga and mindfulness classes? Great. Gym memberships and onsite neck and shoulder massages at your desk? Terrific. Attempts at managing hours and flexible working? All admirable, if often unsustainable for lawyers at busy times, and sometimes simply shifting the burden to others.

None of these efforts are going to strongly and reliably lower the current levels of stress that are threatening not only lawyers' productivity and health but also the business services people who support them. The damage also cascades to families and even, through damaging changes to parents' DNA, threatens the health of children not yet conceived.

One young partner I know at a major US law firm was suffering from a recurrence of depression that had flared briefly five years ago. He has worked 16 hours or more a day all his working life, but the new stressors involved a senior partner who gave no support and was not available for urgent consultations. He was involved in a round-the clock, very public matter, in which, as the junior partner, he was forced to offer advice he didn't agree with and which he felt bordered on the unethical. In spite of great efforts on his part, his team and colleagues were extremely demotivated and the good ones either had left or were leaving. When he tried to talk to his mentor about these concerns, the mentor suggested a daily gym workout.

In order to adequately address the stress pandemic, we must first understand the reasons for it. And to do that we have to look at this creature we call a human being and how it is adapting (or not) to its new (give or take 10,000 years, far too short a time to affect its basic genetic make-up) habitat and way of life.

Workplace environment

First of all, we are the most social of all animals - 80 percent of all our neurobiology and genetics is devoted, at least in part, to surrounding ourselves with a network of supportive relationships. Indeed, studies have shown that we come to work to feel supported and valued by the work 'tribe'. It was the safety felt in belonging to this community that helped to keep stress and depression at bay.

But the work tribe is vanishing. Disruption, flexible working, digitisation, and services such as Lawyers on Demand have seen to that. Without a tribe around us, we become stressed and sometimes depressed or ill in other ways. Working alone is not in our design specs. Nor is wondering if we, or people we work closely with, will have a job tomorrow.

And these stressors are further eroding the legal workplace itself. Today's firms are mostly built on a model of competition and rewarding individual performance - while increasingly scolding lawyers for a lack of 'cooperation'.

'I don't feel I can let my guard down for a moment without someone belittling me or trying to appropriate a team member or even a client,' confided one partner. 'My practice group head has outright told me I have to be more cut-throat in claiming origination credit from my fellow partners. And with the additional pressure these days, even colleagues I thought I could trust are grabbing work and credit when I've tried to be collegial.'

While some firms are better than others, these examples are not isolated. In these challenging times, when people in law most need to share and co-generate new ideas and to energise each other with praise and mutual support, there is even more isolation and distrust.

The real solution to stress will only come with a fulsome commitment on the part of every firm to a culture that supports human beings and aligns with the way the human system - our brains, DNA, and even the microbiota in our guts - really operates.

This will involve a real focus on increasing a sense of belonging, relational safety, and shared meaning. People must learn to interact in ways that stimulate the reward, trust, and bonding areas of the brain, so that they feel valued and safe enough to collaborate and try new things. Simple things like using praise and showing interest in others will even switch on the positive aspects of our DNA that stimulate resilience, optimism, and the capacity to change and innovate. And guess what? You will not only serve clients better, but research shows that they will be drawn to the warmth of your tribe and seek excuses to work with you. And you may find them a bit more relaxed and calm as well. Just as stress spreads like a contagion, so can wellbeing and resilience. SJ

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is co-founder and principal of Fortinberry Murray. She is co-author, with Dr Bob Murray, of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.