Lawyer Life: Stress Awareness Month
Stress in the Legal Profession
April was stress awareness month. Therefore what an opportune time to talk about how stress manifests itself throughout a legal career and legal studies.
A 2012 survey of the law profession by LawCare showed that more than 50% of the profession felt stressed and that 19% were suffering from clinical depression.
In 2013, the Law Society interviewed 2,226 solicitors about stress at work and, shockingly, 95% said their stress was extreme or severe. Worryingly, in 2014, 36% of stressed-out calls to LawCare were from lawyers below 5PQE.
Stress is defined as ‘the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure.’
Long term stress can lead to burnout where you may experience extreme physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
One thing we can all agree on, no matter what stage you are at in your legal career, is that at some point we will all find ourselves to dealing with stress.
The Stigma of Stress
Whilst the stigma around mental health and stress is improving, there is still somewhat of a stigma which inhibits some people from being open and honest about how they are feeling and the stress they are experiencing.
However, it is important to acknowledge that not all stress is bad. It is a natural response to a challenge we are facing and can sometimes drive us to see a task through.
Having said this, it is important to identify when this oversteps into unhealthy stress and pressure which can impact your wellbeing.
The stigma attached to stress can sometimes prevent people from seeking help.
There are many awareness campaigns to help try to combat this:
1. Mental Health Awareness Week – May 2023
2. Stress Awareness Month – April 2023
3. Time to Change
However, it is important that emphasis is placed on the campaigns in order for them to cascade improving the stigma for those directly experiencing it.
How Does Stress Affect Us?
Stress can cause a prolonged fight and flight mode which can cause other health issues including heart and blood pressure issues, and diabetes.
Stress can also impact performance at work, maybe without us even realising. It can affect our ability to make decisions and impact our clarity on certain matters.
It is important to recognise that as individuals we will have different needs and every person will balance these differently.
Whilst we will all have different markers that we are struggling from stress, some common indictors to look out for are as follows:
Sleep disruption: struggling to drift off, waking up throughout the night;
Feeling easily irritated;
Having difficulty staying focused;
Pulling away from colleagues, friends and family;
Putting off things that need to be done, or conversely feeling as though everything must be done now;
Developing unhealthy eating habits;
Avoiding doing things which we know are good for us (e.g. running, working out, yoga, meditation etc);
Increasing our use of alcohol;
Turning towards addictive relaxants, e.g. cigarettes, benzodiazepines.
It is important to make sure you know your own triggers and identify the signals in yourself that you may be suffering with stress, so you can manage the stress before it becomes a larger problem.
The Bellwether Report 2019: Stress in the Legal Profession highlighted 76% of solicitors feel that stress in the legal profession is a major issue and that over a third of solicitors are experiencing stress at work. It further highlighted that 66% of solicitors currently experience high levels of stress.
There are of course the obvious ways to manage stress including exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep and making sure you take regular breaks. From my own experience, the best ways to deal with stress in addition to those are:
1. Do not be afraid to speak up – tell your employer you are experiencing stress and let them know how they can help. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. In fact, it shows a strength that you are able to identify your limits and manage the situation in a controlled way.
2. Identify where the stress is coming from – whether that be the workplace, targets, exams etc.
3. Simplify – when you feel under pressure, try and simplify your life as much as possible and anything you cannot change or control try to accept and focus on what you can change and how you can change it to help you.
How your employer can help with stress management
Work is the number one cause of stress in the UK, according to the Samaritans.
HSE research has identified six aspects of work which can have a negative impact on employee health and lead to stress:
Employers can and are now, doing more to help support people struggling with stress, to ensure that the stress is managed and does not cause increased absences from work.
In order to create a healthy environment in the workplace, it is firstly important that your employer recognises the part they play in managing your stress. As part of this, eliminating any unnecessary stresses and having strong support networks is key.
This requires a certain amount of flexibility from an employer, which since Lockdown, we have seen a significant improvement in. By allowing flexibility, trust is created which allows for a more solid, stress-free working environment.
It is widely considered that lawyers thrive in fast-paced, challenging working conditions. Whilst this may sometimes be the case, this cannot be sustained over prolonged periods of time. Therefore, as detailed in this article, it is important that we have the correct mechanisms in place to ensure our stress levels do not inhibit our performance and passion we have for our careers.
The Doncaster Junior Lawyers Division is always here for anyone who feels they are struggling with stress and need someone to talk to. The DJLD provides a network of peers who either have experienced, or are experiencing similar stresses to you and it helps us all, and helps lessen the stigma, if we can all be brave enough to talk about it more.