Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Work and family stress magnify each other

Work and family stress magnify each other


It's time to stop pretending that the legal workplace is not about feelings and relationships, writes Alicia Fortinberry

It's time to stop pretending that the legal workplace is not about feelings and relationships, writes Alicia Fortinberry

It used to be that we could keep the stress in our work and home lives separate - or at least we thought we could. Not anymore.

The research has long shown that the two were connected. The argument you have with your partner at breakfast can wreck your work day. And despite all your resolutions, the dressing down from your boss can translate into irritability with your kids over dinner (if you're lucky enough to get home in time for dinner).

Of course, there can be an upside to this crossover. Working parents benefit from the people skills they learn at work. I have seen this often as a high-level executive coach and adviser. If I can help someone change in one area, say with their family, that would cross over to their relationships with teams, clients, and bosses. And vice versa.

I coached one very successful legal dealmaker whose aggression won him money and acclaim - until it turned against his own firm, particularly the board. Called in to do an intervention, I found the only area of his life he was motivated to change was his family, about which he felt enormous guilt. A victim of his own work-consumed father's anger, he himself had dominated and neglected his children and they were suffering. His eldest daughter gave him a broken nose during an argument. Ironically, he had smiled when he recognised in her his own stubborn, aggressive younger self. And she decked him.

After a lot of self-reflection and tremendous patience and effort, he was able to be there for his family and help them through the last difficult stages of growing up. He then did the same for his team, selflessly stepping back and encouraging his protégés to take his clients and his place (and the 20-hour, seven-day workweeks).

'I thought our work would make me a better person, and it did,' he told me. 'What I realise now is that learning to work with rather than against people, even on the other side, also made me a better dealmaker.'

This positive cross-influence can work when there is manageable stress in one or even two areas. When I started this work, stress was largely containable. People worked hard to quarantine the different aspects of their lives, often moving with relief from one to the other, although this in itself has negative effects. For example, children grow up not understanding what their parents do, or the compromises and relationship skills they rely on to get them through their days.

But times have gotten so much harder. Concerns about the economy, shrinking markets and opportunities, overcrowded schools, broken communities, and the real possibility of loss of any meaningful work are overwhelming. Now the pain, frustration, fear, guilt, and anger all too often slosh over and create more agitation in both areas of our lives.

The resulting stress and depression is rising so rapidly I suspect the statistics haven't caught up yet. Lawyers seem to take a perverse pride in suffering the most depression (double the rate of the general public). But in law and beyond, pandemic is not too strong a word.

Debilitating depression at work used to be seen to affect only the few, something HR had to deal with. Low-level depression (clinically known as dysthemia) was a drain perhaps on the overall profitability of the firm, but management shrugged its shoulders, put in some exercise or meditation classes or awareness courses, and got on with things.

Now I am seeing teams shredded by 'stress leaves', including on the part of senior people. Counter-intuitively, senior people, including partners and senior management, actually suffered less from work stress because they were insulated by their status and sense of autonomy. It would seem that's no longer such a buffer. Top partners leave, often because they feel it will be less stressful - or at least different - elsewhere.

As a result of these absences and losses of experienced people, remaining teams are under more work pressure. And there is helplessness, sorrow, and contagion when colleagues stumble and perhaps fall away. And then there is the growing suicide rate for lawyers (nearly six times the national average in the US and Canada), that touch a surprising number of colleagues across the intertwined community of law firms and their clients. People ask themselves what they could have done to help - and what they can do to avoid the same fate.

Because my partner Bob and I are known for our books on optimism and bringing up optimistic children, as well as on leadership and strategy, our law clients sometimes ask us to help them with mood-related problems of family members. Both the number and the seriousness of these requests are growing. Parents hope that the sources they trust from work can help at home, and they may not know who else to turn to. Plus, of course, to even look for treatment means admitting there is a problem, and they want to shield their families - and themselves - from what they see as a turning point.

What is the solution to this tsunami of pain and even heartbreak? I don't know. But it's time we stopped pretending that the workplace and profession is not about feelings and relationships, and should be sanitised and cordoned off from the other parts of our lives. Pretending that the isolated nuclear family can thrive unaided. Pretending that we are not in big trouble that goes beyond even the economic mess our societies have put us in. The problem is pervasive and endemic to every aspect of our lives: social, political, economic, environmental - the list goes on.

We need to wake up, question all our assumptions. At least lawyers have the skill to do that. We need to step out of our cubicles and domiciles and reach out to each other in all areas of our lives with genuine interest, honesty, and kindness. And see where that takes us. To quote today's favourite American political psychopath: what have we got to lose?

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is a principal at Fortinberry Murray