If you think you have a stressful job, it’s not just your imagination. High stress is a fact of life for people in the legal profession — as is routinely shown by surveys and rankings of stress in the workplace. So the question is this: How will you manage the stress that inevitably is part of your work?
The first step is developing an awareness of when you’re experiencing stress. (Be honest with yourself about the tension you’re feeling, even if your typical way of dealing with the stress is to “suck it up” so no one else sees what you’re going through.) Once you’re aware of these stresses, you need a set of strategies for managing the discomfort you’re feeling. These are among the tried-and-true methods for coping with workplace stress:
Exercise is the closest thing we have to a Fountain of Youth, and one of the single most effective ways to combat stress. Exercise physiologist Cameron McDonald put it this way: “(Exercise) builds resilience in brain cells so they don’t respond as acutely to stress…It’s an immunization to stress.” McDonald suggests that lawyers should exercise — at moderate intensity — for thirty minutes, at least three times per week.
Get the Sleep You Need
Given the long work hours that are commonplace in the legal profession, there is an unfortunate tendency to compensate by cutting back on sleep. (So you’re trying to get more work done — but now you’re tired, cranky and unable to concentrate. Sooner or later, increased stress is sure to follow.) Getting a solid night’s sleep is basic hygiene; not just a nice to have, a must have. So make a commitment to get more sleep — then set a regular bedtime schedule, and stick to it.
Talk With People You Trust
Talking about the cause of your stress can be extremely useful — both in empathy of an understanding listener and in releasing some of the “energy” surrounding the problem. In hearing yourself describe a stressful situation, you also may gain insight that helps you take constructive action.
Use good judgment, however, in choosing the people with whom you share your problems. In a legal workplace, some of the stress-inducing matters will involve confidential information. Also, comments made to officemates sometimes get repeated in ways that give rise to misunderstandings that generate yet more stress. Where this is a concern, perhaps an outside counselor would provide the confidentiality and objectivity you’re seeking.
Take Regular Breaks
Physical activity is an excellent way to dissipate stress. Simply stepping away from your desk and walking for 10-15 minutes can break up the muscle tension that accompanies mental tension. Alternatively, give stretching a try. Although not a substitute for a full-fledged exercise program, stretching does provide a way to relieve tension in the privacy of your office. (What kind of stretches? Take a look at the Office Stretches slideshow from the Mayo Clinic.)
Recent studies show that sitting at a desk for eight (or more) hours a day can contribute to serious health problems — not the least of which is the buildup of stress. As a counter to this problem, many people in legal jobs are creating a desk surface that allows them to stand while working at their computers and telephones. (Your office situation may not allow a reconfiguration of your desk area — but if you do any measure of work at home, this tip might be worthwhile.)
In the course of a generation, public perception about meditation has undergone a transformation. Although meditation can be a cornerstone of a spiritual practice, it also has stress-reduction properties that have been well documented by scientific studies. The bottom line: Meditation is an eminently practical technique that is simple, easily learned and can be performed in 20-30 minutes. What are you waiting for?
Cultivate Skills in Stress Avoidance
One more thing: Be aware that any stress you can avoid is stress that you won’t have to manage. Sometimes this means not saying “yes” to every new task and assignment that comes along. Sometimes this means becoming a better delegator — so that other team members are empowered to help relieve the burden you’re feeling. Sometimes this means improving your own time-management skills — so that you’re focusing first on those high-value projects that will bring you the greatest rewards…or the most stress. The choices are yours.
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