Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Stress?

Stress4Stress doesn't really scare me. It is part and parcel of our lives. Why, might you ask, would anyone say that? Probably because in the second half of my work life, I have found the secrets to a relatively stress free career.

Article after article has been written about stress. It’s the same old, same old: manage your stress, have a plan, stay positive, visualize your last trip to Hawaii in the sun-soaked terrain, exercise daily and get regular hot rock massages. That, or have a glass of good white wine, get in the bathtub with lots of Evelyn & Crabtree, cozy candles and listen to old Neil Diamond songs.

I don’t know where some of these authors get this stuff, except to say that they must live in Dreamland, somewhere east of here. Have they ever worked in a law firm? I used to be the most stressed-out person I knew. I averaged 90 hour weeks in the legal field as an executive in a $5 billion corporation, traveled three weeks out of four, answered to some big shots who thought they owned the planet, and managed hundreds of people. It wasn’t much different when I was a paralegal manager. There were critical deadlines to meet, difficult attorneys to juggle, anxious clients to handle and something called a “minimum billable hours” requirement, now referred to as “suggested” hours in a more politically correct and less actionable environment. I recently looked at a picture of myself during that era. I was holding my new-born niece, Cristina, a joy to behold and I looked like I just escaped from a train wreck and stopped by to say howdy.

Some years ago, California Lawyer magazine published an article by Richard Carlton, author of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” that cited: “Among members of the medical community, there is a growing acceptance that stress from long working hours, such as 70 hours a week or more, may contribute to the onset of clinical depression. A study of 10,000 adults by a team from Johns Hopkins University discovered that among all the occupational groups represented, attorneys had the highest prevalence of signs and symptoms of clinical depression. In fact, the rate of depression among the attorneys studied was 3.6 times the norm for all occupations.”

The article further stated that, “Psychologists observe that attorneys, who are trained to be impersonal and objective, often apply the same approach to their personal problems and are reluctant to focus on their inner emotional lives.” Wow. Examining the state of mind of those around you in relation to why your atmosphere seems stressful is very revealing, indeed. First, let’s debunk some myths about workplace stress.

Myth #1:  Stress is normal for anyone working in the legal community.  The stakes are high and when the stakes are high, so is the stress.  Anything can go wrong at any time.  Stress is even good for you because it pushes you to perform.

            Some people think that if you’re not too busy, you’re not really crucial to the organization, particularly when you are rewarded for high billable hours.  But stress does not mean you matter. It either means that something is wrong at work or that you’re not doing a good enough job of matching your tasks to your time. Worse, it also means that you get less work done, because stressed people are less efficient, worse communicators and even worse at making good decisions. To accept stress as a normal condition of work is bad for people and bad for business.

There are also certain delusions we create for ourselves.  Declaring that you thrive under stress is a justification for procrastination. Sure, there are people who can’t figure out how to deliver anything until the last minute. But this is a crisis in confidence (fear of starting for fear of failing) as opposed to stunning brilliance unlocked by stress.

Myth #2: Stress is caused by working too much.   But then, why do some people work 80 hours a week and feel great, while some people work 30 hours and get seriously stressed?  Here’s why: stress has nothing to do with the number of hours you work, and everything to do with how you feel during those hours. If you work 100 hours a week and feel great, have fun and take pride in what you do, you won’t be stressed. If you work 30 hours a week feel inadequate, bullied or unappreciated, you will be stressed.  Stress at the workplace does not always cause unhappiness. Your workplace happiness hinges more on whether or not you like your work than on whether or not your work is stressful, according to Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton University.

Myth #3: Stress is cured by working fewer hours.  Most workplaces react to stress by reducing employees’ workloads, responsibilities or working hours and in serious cases, by giving people long sick leaves. According to Danish medical researcher Bo Netterstrom who has studied workplace stress for 30 years, this is a mistake.

            Netterstrom claims people hit by stress need to increase their confidence at work. While time off can be necessary to treat the immediate symptoms of stress, a long absence from the workplace does exactly the opposite. When people return, they’re even more vulnerable. Worse, some never return to work at all. Reducing work or leaving work temporarily doesn’t fix any underlying problems. When employees return to work or to “normal” work conditions, nothing has changed and the stress returns quickly.

Myth #4: Stress is cured by working more.   Falling behind at work from time- to-time is a given in this 24/7, Internet accessed, Iphoned, work world. Believing that if you work really hard for a while you’ll catch up and then stress will go away is a fairy tale. It won’t “just go away” for two reasons:
            1.         Workplace stress does not come from falling behind at work. It comes from how you feel about falling behind.

            2.         In most law firm environments, people will always be behind. There is simply too much work. Finishing all your assignments can mean getting more work along with the career enhancing opportunity to push your billable hours even higher. 

            A temporary push to reduce a pile of work or meet a deadline is fine. But all too often that temporary push becomes the new standard.  So the solution to stress is not to work harder to catch up because in most law firms, this is impossible. The solution is to feel good about the work you finish and not to get stressed about the work you don’t finish. It’s not that you should stop caring or not look for a solution.  It’s that you should avoid a vicious circle:  being stressed makes you less productive which means you get less work done and become more stressed.  

The Truth about Stress

            Work does not give you stress. Feeling bad about work gives you stress. This means that changing your work hours, responsibilities, priorities or work environment is meaningless, unless it also changes the way you feel at work. Forget about those stress management courses. They just will not do the trick either, unless they can achieve how you feel.

            The most common sources of stress for legal professionals — deadlines, lack of control over time, difficult clients, escalating intensity, no margin for error – are outside of a paralegal’s control.  What determines how much stress these circumstances cause is the degree to which these “givens” are perceived as threatening. Any perceived threat – real or not – triggers our body’s “fight-or-flight response.” Over a period of time, it is possible to modify how your body reacts by whether you perceive situations as threatening. Ask yourself whether an issue really justifies your current reaction – or, whether it will matter in a month. Keep matters in perspective so that stress is relative to its importance.

What Do I Do Now?

            Given that I have knocked a number of standard stress articles, I do have a few suggestions that personally helped change my life around.  Everyone can find a way out of stress and some may wish to seek professional counseling. Let me share a few things that I found helpful:

                1.         You can’t change things if you don’t acknowledge them.  Ok, so I’m quoting a TV psychologist.  But he hit it right on.  When it was first brought to my attention that I was stressed out, I was in total denial.  Because I was fearful of being accused of failing and I wanted to do a great job, I denied I was stressed-out.  To me, it was a sign that I couldn’t deal with the job.  What I really needed to change was my responses.  Acknowledge what is.  Without that acknowledgement, you cannot take action.

                2.         Learn to really laugh.  How long has it been since you laughed out loud, long and hard?  I mean a good belly-laugh.  If you’re stressed-out, it’s probably been awhile.  Laughter releases endorphins, natural pain-killers.  It boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and disease-destroying antibodies called B-cells.  In short, it’s great medicine. 

                 3.         Make a friend at work. When you have someone you can confide in, someone with whom you feel secure, trust, can share the ups-and-downs of the workplace, you feel better.  The environment somehow doesn’t seem all that bad.

                4.         Make a decision.  The only way to transform your life is to make a decision to change and then honor that decision.  Decide how you want to live your life and set about with complete certainty to create it.  The most critical time in my career came when I decided that I wanted to create the environment that was right for me. I wanted to own my own business and call my own shots.  I haven’t looked back.  I’m happier than a clam.

                5.         Love ‘em or leave ‘em.  You have to love what you’re doing.  You absolutely have to get up in the morning and be excited about the workday.  There is no better career booster than a job that you love, thrive in and that remains fun and stimulating.  That’s what actually changed me around.  I personally created a situation where I am passionate about what I do; feel appreciated, challenged and excited just about every day. (There is no 100% avoidance in the war against stress.) With that attitude, it doesn’t matter if I work 30 or 90 hours a week.  I am thrilled by what I do and the time I spend doing it.

            The secrets to a (relatively) stress-free environment? Make a decision to craft your career so that it works for you.  Decide what you will stress about and what you will not.  By loving the job you’re in, stress becomes  a challenge and challenge become invigorating.  Trust someone who spent the first half of her career as sergeant of the stress battalion: creating a work environment that is pretty much stress free is the long-term answer for outrageous, healthy success.

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute and President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She She is the author of 10 books on legal careers, a national seminar speaker and has been written up in Newsweek, LA Times, Daily Journal, Entrepreneur magazine and other top publications. She is the recipient of the LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award. You can find her with free time on Sundays from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Talk to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.  Copyright C.B. Estrin 2016