Volume 12, no. 4
Stress: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By David J. Abeshouse
The law is not a laid-back profession. Lawyers in a wide range of practice settings experience considerable stress in their lives and work. Although the particular sorts of stresses vary from job to job and person to person, the effect of stress on our mental health is a fact of life in the legal profession. So, how best to reduce, or at least manage, stress?
Many seek relief through various stress reduction techniques, the effectiveness of which varies greatly from situation to situation:
• Exercises and therapies—such as Zen meditation and yoga, physical exercise programs, hypnosis, sessions with a coach or psychologist, music and music therapy (and remember to sleep well, eat nutritiously, and drink plenty of water);
• Planning and organizing—such as so-called “time management” techniques (for example, ditch the cell phone or PDA temporarily—step away from that “crackberry,” set aside regular blocks of time devoted to getting certain tasks done, shift most communications to a preferred mode such as from telephone to e-mail), strategizing your workday in advance to the extent possible, tackling the most difficult and important tasks first, managing others’ expectations in part by underpromising and overdelivering, using technology to improve efficiency, working additional hours as needed to reduce immediate pressure, choosing your clients and cases carefully, and being willing to “fire” clients who cause you more stress than they’re worth;
• Focus on work/life balance—including fairness to both family time and business time, melding business relationships with your personal life, vacation planning to get that much-needed change of scenery, taking workday lunch breaks or walks to clear your head;
• Spending money or capital—by investing in more staff, joining a gym, taking on additional space, vacationing, or changing your ownership interest and responsibilities (semi-retire);
• Hobbies—such as golf, music, theater, film, sports, camping, or creating things.
It turns out that taking breaks may be more important than most of us realize. A 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review (“The Making of a Corporate Athlete”) demonstrates that professionals such as lawyers can learn from physical athletes that recovering energy expended during sustained high achievement is crucial to perpetuating that achievement. Breaks of various sorts (vacations, lunches, walks, looking up from your computer screen) are keys to recovering energy and setting the stage for continued performance.
The focus on reducing or managing stress implies that all stress is negative. True, excess stress taxes us physically, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. However, stress can have positive effects on mental health and personal performance. Stress is an inherent motivator: When under some stress, many people perform better, possibly because they are more focused, stimulated, energized, channeled, and competitive.
So what we really need in the context of stress is (as with pretty much anything else) just the right amount. Too much, or even too little, can be detrimental. What constitutes the right amount necessarily varies from individual to individual. Tweak your work life and keep track of how the changes affect you, and over time you’ll likely find the right formula for yourself. But don’t think about it too much . . . or you’ll stress yourself out.