Personal injury attorney Dan Lukasik says at certain points during his practice that he “felt like I had a coffee pot brewing 24/7 in my stomach. I became hypervigilant; each of the files on my desk felt like ticking time bombs about to go off.”
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. They affect over 18% of adults, which means 40 million people in this country deal with crippling anxiety on a daily basis. Even though it is highly treatable, only a third of those who experience it seek treatment.
And even among those people who don’t have clinical levels of anxiety, we can all understand the debilitating sensations of extreme stress.
Troubling evidence shows anxiety levels have been on the rise for the past 80 years, and those numbers are showing some rapid growth recently. The last decade has seen a dramatic spike in anxiety levels across all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders.
And as you may guess, the legal profession has its own special pitfalls when it comes to stress and anxiety. We work long hours, juggle heavy caseloads, and engage in an adversarial system where we can only win by making others lose.
That’s why law has been called a “profession in distress,” and has been tied to astronomical rates of substance abuse and other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Those suffering from anxiety disorders deserve immediate and unstigmatized treatment. But in addition, we can all reduce the work practices that ramp up our stress and burn people out.
Though technology has done a lot to bring about this problem, there are also ways that more tools can help get us out. Here are four ways to fight the anxiety epidemic:
1. Find Flexibility
Some professionals dislike the structurelessness of working from home. But others have found it greatly improves their work-life balance. Research shows that when workers have control of where and when they work, they feel less stress over work-life conflict.
If you you hate the commute and want to work in yoga pants, cloud-based technologies can make it possible.
2. Power Down
But wherever and whenever you work, you also need to set aside time for relaxation.
The perpetual presence of devices and the buzz of notifications wreaks havoc on our brains. The constant jabbering of the internet, social media, and work notifications create a toxic positive feedback loop: we feel anxiety, we seek relief by looking at our phones, and we feel even more anxiety — ad infinitum.
Though tech is the culprit, it can also help us. Doing work more efficiently — through law firm automation — can free up extra time away from work. Virtual receptionist services can take care of incoming calls during off hours. Features like text-to-case-file and email-to-case-file can ensure that communication from your client is properly preserved and available for others to answer or for you to get to when you’re back at work.
That extra time can be spent connecting with others who relax you, going to restful places, or practicing self-care like meditation and exercise.
3. Create an Anti-Interruption Culture
Workplace interruptions lead to higher burnout, exhaustion, and stress. But states of focus and flow can dramatically improve your mood.
Not all interruptions are equal. They exist in a continuum. On the far side is someone barging into your office. Subtle interruptions are things like receiving an email or a social notification on your phone. The key to an anti-interruption culture is to distinguish what is truly urgent and push everything else as far away from the invasive side of this continuum as possible.
One way technology can help here is by creating space for important, yet non-urgent communication. Find spaces where you can have asynchronous communication instead of instant messages. This can be in the tasks and notes of a case management system: you will get to them at your earliest availability, but you don’t have to immediately stop your current work to attend to them.
4. Use Tech to Build Your Confidence and Control
Research shows that it’s not necessarily the intensity of your workplace that governs your stress levels. Sometimes it’s more about your sense of control.
You can make work a more calming place if you have a system that organizes all of your information. You’ll feel a stronger sense of control if you know where to find everything, instead of wasting time searching across multiple apps and storage spaces for a lost file.
If you start to feel – like Dan Lukasik – that the coffee pot is brewing inside your own stomach, then of course you should seek the help you need. But remember that it might not be just you. It could be everyone working under conditions that encourage anxiety.
With more mindful engagement with tools and practices, you can create a little space of serenity amid this age of anxiety.