Face up to professional pressure

An Industrial Society survey recently found workplace stress to be a serious problem in 90 per cent of organisations, leading to rising absenteeism, poor productivity, and low morale. These are the damaging effects of workplace stress and the legal profession is not immune to them.

Every aspect of life is a potential source of stress. Not necessarily a bad thing, since moderate amounts of it are beneficial. It is only stress – competing demands on time and attention – that keeps us alert, motivated and performing to the best of our ability.

But pile on the pressure and you'll start to encounter stress overload. Work performance deteriorates: multiple demands clamour for your attention making it impossible to concentrate properly on anything.

The simplest task becomes problematic. You make silly mistakes. You get annoyed with yourself. You snap at other people. The more work that lands on your plate, the more out-of-control you feel.

But the Industrial Society survey also found that many managers regard workplace stress as an unavoidable hazard and don't believe there's anything they can do about the problem. This is an attitude that may be shared by many in the legal profession. Stress, after all, comes with the territory.

Handling stress is implicit in the legal profession and dealing with stress in one's stride is what makes one a member of the professional classes. The legal profession, so the argument goes, attracts prudent, analytical people to its ranks.

Legal training reinforces these characteristics; lawyers are trained to be dispassionate, to see both sides of the argument, to be unruffled under adversarial attack. Lawyers do not react to high pressure with symptoms of stress overload.

Like many other popular misconceptions, this has a degree of truth to it. Lawyers are people of tremendous capacity, able to deal with more pressure than most. Their training does equip them to deal exceptionally well with stress. But just because lawyers can deal with stress better than most doesn't mean that there isn't a problem, simply that the goal posts have been moved.

The law is highly involved and lawyers struggle with complex issues. Dealing with such matters, however thoroughly one has been trained, is a demanding business.

The more successful a lawyer is in practice, the more of these complex demands he or she is likely to attract. Lawyers acknowledge the demanding nature of the work by surrounding themselves with some of the best support systems – from legal secretaries and IT divisions, to marketing departments. Given all that high-grade help, the individual lawyer is free to get on with the tasks that specifically concern him or her, can always cope, is always on top of things.

Wrong. Lawyers must accept their humanity and like everyone else they have their breaking point. Lawyers suffer from workplace stress too, and the sooner everyone faces up to the fact the better.

Apart from anything else refusing to admit workplace stress exists is unfair to the client. No client appreciates a lawyer who is clearly suffering stress overload but fervently denies there is any problem. How professional is that?

Lawyers can deal with the problems of workplace stress – learning some stress management techniques can be a good start. But before that can happen, everyone in the legal profession needs not only to acknowledge the existence of workplace stress, but also to admit that it is a problem they may suffer from themselves.