Why high levels of stress shouldn’t be part and parcel of being a lawyer

Burnout isn’t inevitable. On National Stress Awareness Day, we look at the endemic levels of stress in the legal profession and why it should no longer be tolerated as ‘part of the job’.

How much stress in our careers is acceptable? Law is widely considered to be one of the most highly stressful industries by those both inside and outside the profession. We all thrive on a certain amount of pressure, but on-going periods of high stress can have serious implications on physical and mental health.

Lawyers and the Pursuit of Happiness is a recent study by Keystone Law examining the happiness and wellbeing of 300 legal professionals. It found more than 63% of those surveyed believe law is more stressful than any other profession. Other studies have shown mental health occurrences more than double in law than other professions. Tellingly, the majority of respondents in the Keystone study (37.5%) cited flexible working as a solution to make job more enjoyable and less stressful.

As the legal services industry begins to change, flexible working patterns are more available to people with family and life demands. But this isn’t the whole story – it’s not just about accommodating personal circumstance, it’s about changing the culture of legal work to stop accepting burnout as an inevitable price to pay for being a lawyer. Legal work is highly valuable and it requires years of training, experience and aptitude to do the job well. However, it shouldn’t mean that people should have to run themselves into the ground to be successful. Everyone has to put in the overtime now and again, but a fair share of downtime should be facilitated. Client demands, a key point of stress for many lawyers in the study, can be met with more human first working patterns. As pointed out to us recently by an Obelisk consultant, with these changes clients have so many more flexible options to resource their legal needs, rather than paying for services and overheads they don’t require – potentially reducing stress on their part. With changing working patterns more and more companies are discovering that more can be achieved with less impact on mental and physical health, and that fostering culture with extreme levels of pressure is counterproductive long term. Healthier, happier legal professionals work better and are therefore likely to keep doing so for longer.

Take action

The International Stress Management Association identifies the psychological, emotional, physical and behavioural stress symptoms, such as memory lapses, mood swings, weight fluctuations and self-neglect. If you feel it is time to start making some changes to the way you work, there are options out there, and people you can talk to – many of whom have been there and come through the other side. Talk to a doctor, and have some honest conversations with friends and relations. Be part of the change and consider flexible working options to take control of your working life, and together perhaps we can banish the culture of burnout once and for all.

Stop stress from being the measure by which you value your worth as a professional. Explore The Attic for more thoughtful reads on the topic.