This is the year we face a global pandemic, financial turmoil, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and a punishing election season.
We’re all doing just fine, right?
Maybe not. According to the American Medical Association, anxiety rates have tripled since 2019. “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come,” warned the American Psychological Association last month in their yearly stress report.
The trend has been hitting the already high-stress profession of law as well. 85% of legal professionals say the lead up to the election affected their mental health. Asked to rate their general levels of stress from 1-10, 80% of legal professionals put it above a 7.
For lawyers and law firm staff, there are two avenues for relief from debilitating stress. One is through larger structural and cultural changes at the firm level, which can calm anxiety caused or exacerbated by our careers. The other is through individual stress-relieving techniques, which we can try regardless of where we work.
We need both. Here’s a look at one step from each of those avenues that can begin making big changes today:
The One Change Law Firms Can Make to Cut Stress
It’s not any secret that a career in law leads to stress. As Susan Smith Blakely, the Founder of LegalPespectives LLC put it:
Workers in traditional law-firm culture have a laundry-list of grievances, from extremely long hours to adversarial in-office relationships. Many firms are working hard to change. Others resist the changes, arguing that law should only be a profession for those who like the adrenaline and pressure that come with it.
As the proverb puts it, if you can’t handle the heat (or if you don’t like repressing your emotions until they burst out as damaging addictions), get out of the law office.
Wherever lawyers stand on this debate, there is one change that can have a major effect on the well-being of lawyers and staff.
Stressed legal workers want increased transparency. They are desperate to understand where the firm stands financially, where it might be going, and what role they are expected to play.
In times of crisis, associates and staff are left wondering whether they’ll see pay reductions or one day be cut entirely from the rosters. It’s not enough to tell them everything’s fine. They’re making their own big financial decisions—and often they’re doing it blind.
Law.com recently found transparency to be “paramount” for the mental well-being of midlevel associates. And it’s no wonder. Even in calmer times, transparency has been found to be among the most important factors for happiness in any workplace.
The Neuroleadership Institute (NLI), which studies how brains function in the workplace, has an interesting explanation behind this. As social beings, our brains are highly attuned to analyzing the social information around us. Two of our obsessions are certainty and fairness. When a brain perceives a threat to certainty or fairness, “it responds just as it does to physical pain, triggering changes in the prefrontal cortex that undermine our ability to collaborate with others and forge trusting relationships,” writes the NLI.
On the other hand, the NLI has found that when we perceive social rewards around certainty and fairness, “we not only find it incredibly motivating, but our ability to engage in problem-solving, collaboration, and creative thinking is enhanced.”
By increasing transparency, law firms can also harness these rewards.
What does transparency look like? It will be different for each firm. Some go so far as to reveal compensation levels. Others hold regular ‘town hall’ meetings where they present updates on firm finances, set out goals, and address questions.
The point is to engage in communication early and often with all levels of lawyers and staff at the firm. Include associates in meetings. Create clear guidelines for reviews, promotions, and bonuses (and stick to them). And be honest about your priorities.
One Personal Change to Become More Resilient
Maybe it’s not up to you to decide what happens at your firm. It’s surely not up to you to decide what happens in the wider, stress-supercharged world. The truth is, we usually can’t choose whether or not we face stressful situations. We can only choose how we respond to them.
The science is clear that meditation, therapy, and exercise all help. Unfortunately, they all also require time and discipline. While you’re working toward these healthier habits, there’s one change that can lead to surprising results.
Science suggests that embracing the stress response, rather than fighting it, can benefit your mental and physical health.
Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal has led some of the powerful new work on this subject. Her work suggests that more important than our level of stress is how we think about that stress.
Here’s how her findings play out: if we believe stress is harming us and try to avoid it, we’re likely to compound the problem by sinking into negative coping mechanisms. One study found that even just having the goal to avoid stress made it more likely for people to face depression, divorce, and job termination.
McGonigal also found people who weren’t trying to avoid stress. They still experienced high stress levels. But they believed their stress response was helpful for their situation. They found stressful events (like building a career or caring for a sick or injured loved one) to be meaningful in their lives. Remarkably, these participants didn’t experience the negative health and social consequences associated with high stress levels.
McGonigal’s work joins others in challenging the traditional concept of stress. A 2012 study out of Harvard showed that when people were told about the positive benefits of the stress response before doing a stressful task, they showed physiological benefits compared to the control group. Their blood vessels didn’t contract as much, even as their heart rate increased.
These results shouldn’t be over-simplified. Stress still harms huge numbers of people. High levels of chronic stress, coupled with a lack of autonomy and control and a lack of a sense of meaning will still likely lead to negative health outcomes.
But reframing your idea of stress can still bring big benefits. Here’s how McGonigal suggests running through these 3 steps to get started:
- Pay attention to your body’s stress response. Consider how those responses exist to give you an advantage in difficult times. For example, if your heart is pumping faster that means it’s giving you the oxygen you need to be fully energized to face the moment.
- Think about other times you’ve handled stress and learned from the experience. ‘Stress testing’ for astronauts exists because we understand that each time you handle stress well, you become better at handling stress. The experience becomes less stressful. This is a kind of ‘stress inoculation’ that means this moment will prepare you better for the future.
- Recognize the universality of stress. It’s something everyone deals with, and not proof that you’ve made a mistake or have a damaged life.
We maybe can’t end the pandemic, resolve all disputes about the election, solve climate change, build social harmony, and get rid of those invasive murder-hornets. But Filevine will be here to support the hard work of legal professionals as they build the future of law.