Too many lawyers engage in self-sabotaging behaviour, said one neuropsychologist. However, there are simple, practical steps that one can implement, personally and professionally, to minimise toxicity.
It is all but impossible for lawyers – or anyone else for that matter – to fully remove all toxic elements from their day-to-day lives. However, what is doable, Dr Hannah Korrel said, so to have a “low-tox life” – that is, we can reduce certain toxicity from our existences so that we are better placed to manage our professional journeys.
Dr Korrel – an author and neuropsychologist – spoke last year on The Lawyers Weekly Show, at which time she spoke about how best to break up with a bad boss and the impact of gaslighting in the workplace.
Returning to The Lawyers Weekly Show, she said that, following on from that initial conversation about navigating external forces, there are practical ways that lawyers can assert more control over toxicity, especially after the age of coronavirus.
Overwork and secondary trauma
In the past two years, lawyers have been “spending far too much time on their computers, having poorer work boundaries around taking lunch breaks and when they started and finished”, Dr Korrel mused.
Consistent themes from this age, she continued, have been overwork and exposure to secondary trauma – even though COVID-19 resulted in greater physical distance from workplace superiors and clients.
“Even though your managers can’t observe you at your desk, it’s almost worse because there’s no clear differentiation between the workplace and home,” she reflected.
With legal employers now encouraging people back into offices post-Omicron, Dr Korrel said that she is worried that there is “going to be a period of malaise and reticence when you come back into the workplace and you expect things to be different, only to realise that the same old shit is still there”.
When it comes to navigating that toxicity, lawyers must appreciate that the approach doesn’t necessarily mean confronting their bosses or those who are mistreating or disrespecting you. It simply means, she said, minimising certain toxic elements that you have greater control over.
‘Cover your arse’
Dr Korrel suggested that the “golden rule” that lawyers can live by this year is to “cover your arse”.
“Instead of waiting for an issue to occur, proactively say to your boss, or manager, or colleagues that you want to make a reasonable estimate of how long a project will take and how many hours it will require.
“Set up a running sheet, a Google Doc, or some shared handover form where you provide that information to one another so you set feasible and realistic expectations, and you can log when there has been a derailment, an obstacle, an unexpected surprise that has blown out the project,” she advised.
Set up those systems, she said, “so that you can cover your arse ahead of time when an issue arises”.
“It’s a lot easier to deal with an issue if and when everything was calm and happy and pleasant, and you have set up a nice little safety net for yourself for when something’s not calm, and when everything hits the fan. At least, in that instance, you will have covered your arse.”
Moreover, Dr Korrel continued, there are numerous physical actions that lawyers can take to incrementally reduce toxicity in their day-to-day working lives.
“What are you doing for your body to help you prepare for what is a really emotionally and physically tough job?” she asked.
“What does your chair look like (at home)? Do you have lumbar support? Have you got a good set-up? For crying out loud, it’s your spine. Buy yourself a nice chair and whatever else you need to support your body.
“If you can’t tackle the toxic boss, then tackle the problems that you can tackle.”
“Drink water every day. Have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Have a hot shower. Go and get a massage. Go to the gym. At the very least, take care of yourself in a perfunctory bodily way,” Dr Korrel outlined.
There are also physiological steps that can be taken, too.
Dr Korrel said: “How are you preparing for Monday? Do you get enough sleep? Do you get your eight hours, or do you roll into Friday night as a husk of a human being, before drinking a bottle of wine? The latter is just going to suppress your sleep, so you’re even less likely to get a good night’s sleep, keep you up later, and then you’ll roll into Monday already on 50 per cent optimal capacity, at which time you’ve got to slog through the week again.”
Finally, more lawyers should be considering engaging the assistance of counsellors and psychologists, “where you get to talk about some of the daily toxicity that you experience, so that you’re not constantly barraging your partner or friends with the same stories and you’re not putting pressure on those relationships”.
Better separating loved ones from that toxicity, she noted, “gives you a safe space”.
Self-sabotage and learning to love yourself
Ultimately, Dr Korrel stressed, lawyers must ask themselves “what self-sabotaging behaviour they might be engaged in”, which feels good in the moment but can be so deleterious, such as “revenge procrastination”, whereby one stays up late in order to have personal time, such as watching Netflix.
“What part of your day can you carve out for yourself to make sure you are not running yourself into the ground?
“We have to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Your body will stop you eventually. It will catch up with you. It does that because it loves you. Your heart has stress and sadness and anxiety because it loves you,” Dr Korrel said.
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Dr Hannah Korrel, click below: