‘It’s not the load that breaks you, it’s the way you carry it’
Let’s be honest, working as a lawyer can be stressful at times. As a freelance lawyer, arguably the prospect of a decent work/life balance is not as elusive as it may be in some other areas of the law, but there are still times when work demands start mounting and the pressure of adjusting to new working environments, trying to impress new clients and quickly building new working relationships can start to take its toll on mental wellbeing.
When your line of work is legal service delivery, there’s a constant expectation of the highest level of professional standards. This, coupled with frequent tight deadlines, means that for many lawyers, the pressure to not make mistakes can weigh heavily. The ever-present nature of technology means that checking and responding to work emails is often the last thing we do at night and the first thing in the morning. For the freelance community, there may also be uncertainty to deal with in the periods in between assignments, so not having enough work could potentially be a stressful experience as well!
It’s a phrase we hear often, but what does it actually mean? Well, the first thing to understand is the stress response is part of one of our most basic human survival instincts -the fight or flight reflex as it’s often referred to. When the body senses danger, it releases hormones including adrenalin and cortisol which provide the body with a boost of energy to either fight the source of the danger or run away from it.
This same stress reaction can be triggered in our body in response to certain adverse experiences at work. This is where the problems can start, because when our body goes in fight or flight mode, the release of hormones can inhibit our ability to think straight and if we are kept in that state for a prolonged period of time, it can also affect our health adversely.
Stress has a significant impact on our bodies, minds and behaviour at work. Quite often when we are in a stressed state, the ‘frantic’ thinking and typical behaviour that ensues inhibits our ability to resolve the very situation that caused the stress in the first place. It can often feel like you’re chasing your own tail and can’t break free from the cycle.
Believe it or not, when it comes to managing stress, our minds (full of legal brilliance though they may be) are not always helpful for improving the situation, unless we know how to keep them in check. In fact, more often than not, our own minds can make a situation seem far worse than it actually is!
When we’re in a particular emotional state, our mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo that state. Upon feeling stressed or threatened, our mind instantly digs up thoughts and memories of when we’ve felt like this in the past, further deepening how we feel. Stress can feed off itself to create more stress and a few anxious, overwhelmed thoughts can end up triggering a whole cascade of anxious, self-critical thoughts and negative emotions which can be very powerful and difficult to stop.
Those who are the most emotionally resilient and competent at managing stress well, are good at identifying when they have been swept into such a loop and they have techniques that they can rely on to consciously change their negative and potentially destructive patterns of thinking. We all have a different natural ability to do this, and the good news is, everyone can improve their own self-awareness of their stress response and learn techniques that will help.
Learning to manage our own minds can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to stress management. A big contributor to workplace stress is the feeling that we’ve lost control of a situation. Whether it’s workload, workplace changes, a complaint, the actions of a client, colleague or our manager– all these are external forces that we have no control over. Naturally, that feels stressful! However, irrespective of the external forces that may be contributing to stress at work, we always have the ability to control how we think. We all have the power of choice over whether to, and how to, react in any given situation. With a bit of training, anyone can learn to be the master of their own mind in an adverse situation at work.
When we’re busy and feeling stressed, with a never-ending ‘to-do’ list, looming deadlines and limited headspace to think about anything other than that stressful situation at work, it’s no wonder that the first thing to be cut out is the ‘luxury’ of looking after yourself. We all know the things that are good for us: exercise, eating well, cutting back on caffeine, getting a good night’s sleep, proper breathing, mindfulness, but we can start next week or the week after when things are a bit quieter, right? Well, chances are, next week will be busy too, and the next one. If we don’t prioritise looking after ourselves, particularly when we’re feeling stressed, we’re most likely to feel progressively worse and the last thing we want is to get to a point of total burn out. And that’s also the last thing that our employers would want. Taking care of yourself is central to stress management, and there are effective ways of doing this without having to find lots of extra hours in the day.
When the stress reaction is triggered, it can be hard for us to mentally separate the emotions that we’re experiencing from the actual problem. Learning how to do this is a very useful technique for stress management, and when we’re able to do this by properly engaging the problem-solving part of our brain, it’s amazing what can be achieved. For almost all of the common triggers of workplace stress, there are a number of practical steps we can take to improve the situation and build resilience. By learning a few key Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) techniques and understanding more about the latest lifestyle science relating to stress management, you too can be StressWise at Work!
Fiona Chambers is an employment lawyer and Senior HR Professional with many years’ experience working in fast paced and high-pressured environments. Fiona has a keen interest in corporate wellbeing and this led to her founding StressWise at Work, a company dedicated to helping organisations and their employees understand and reduce stress. StressWise specialises in providing stress management training workshops and consultancy services.
Fiona is an NLP Practitioner and has significant experience designing and delivering corporate training as well as implementing corporate wellbeing strategies.
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