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Mastering stress and sustainable high performance

Mastering stress and sustainable high performance

Stuart Taylor

When it comes to pressure and stress, the legal industry is certainly over represented – which I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone who has practised law, writes Stuart Taylor.

While it can seem like a pipedream to some, mastering stress and sustainable high performance can be achieved by any professional and it all starts with building resilience. 

Once upon a time, I was in the leadership team at one of the world’s largest business management consultancies. I was a workaholic, putting in 14-hour days and operating at the sharp end. My life revolved around work. I stopped exercising to fit more in, my diet went to the wayside, and I spent less and less time with my family.

On some level I felt a sense of entitlement. I had made it in the corporate world and suffering was a given, or at least that’s what I had convinced myself.

Then in 2002, after a decade of climbing the corporate ladder – one gruelling rung after another – I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Given three years to live at best (should my brain surgery be successful), it felt like a perfectly orchestrated send off from irony itself.

But as it turns out I wasn’t finished yet, in fact I was far from it. The surgery worked and I was back at my desk five months later. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was a changed man. I thought too much about things and it slowed me down at work. I didn’t seek adrenaline, and nor did it seek me. I took a year off work to sort myself out.

After some time living my ‘new life’ – I exercised, ate better, and adopted a different mindset – I realised that some of the small changes I had made not only de-stressed me, but also made me feel more resilient day-to-day and also when faced with adversity.

To sum it up very briefly, I decided instead to pursue a career that incorporated my past experience with my new learnings. By the broadest of explanations, that’s how I got into the business of teaching resilience.

So what of the state of our workforce? I can tell you this – it’s a cocktail of disaster. Our recent Global Resilience Report of 26,099 professionals showed that 55 per cent of us worry excessively, 50 per cent are hyper vigilant, and 45 per cent experience distress symptoms.

Our data also revealed that considerable changes occurred in our workforce from 2010 to 2016 with people’s levels of relaxation, fitness, intensity and impulse control declining over the period. This means people are not relaxing and recovering as well as they once were. In fact, it revealed a 30 per cent reduction in our daily practice of relaxation – the foundation for physical, emotional and cognitive resilience.

While these statistics are gathered from a broad range of professional industries, they are without a doubt indicative of a need for change – especially in high-intensity professional services sectors such as the law, which is widely understood as the profession with the highest rate of depression.

So why resilience?

It’s without a doubt that resilience is a major strategic asset, especially in a high-pressure and complex working world. Resilience helps us maintain and accelerate human performance, and thrive at a sustainable level through emotional agility, compassion and mastery of stress — all while living a more fulfilling life.

After 14 years of speaking to over 20,000 people and organisations on the impact of emotional intelligence and resilient workforces, there hasn’t been one business leader who hasn’t said that what separates their top performers from the pack is their ability to master stress.

Steps to building resilience

While formal, organisation-wide programs can be very effective, individuals need to actively take deliberate steps to build their personal and organisational resilience. I say deliberate because resilience is not necessarily innate. It is a skill that can be purposefully developed and actively maintained. Our report found that with intervention, every category and factor of resilience improves in individuals.

Some of the steps that can help us develop our own resilience are obvious - resilient people get enough sleep and recovery time, they eat well and put aside time each day for physical exercise. The demands of the legal industry mean that practising all these activities daily sometimes might not always be realistic or achievable, but should be aimed for whenever possible. Building on these foundations, resilient people are very mindful of their thoughts and can reframe their thinking for a performance mindset.

Sleep optimisation

It’s important to try to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night. While we can tolerate short periods of sleep deprivation, long-term deprivation is extremely serious and will eventually impact on every area of your life.

Commit to a regular wake up time and discharge sleep debt by going to bed early. Avoid sleeping in on the weekends as this, in effect, jet-lags your body and creates that ‘Mondayitis’ feeling. A small early dinner, avoiding caffeine after 2pm, and sleeping in a cool dark room with no technology, ensure greater quality of sleep.

Exercising positively affects everything

Exercising for 30 minutes, five times a week acts as a protective factor against depression and to support recovery from depression. Inactivity, coupled with poor nutrition and stress, accelerates ageing and reduces muscle mass, cell function and brain volume. More positively, exercise promotes clarity, creativity and emotional regulation – all fundamental qualities in the practice of law.

If you don’t like the gym, buy a skipping rope and jump for a few minutes at a time in short bursts. You could do this during ad breaks while watching the news or at the office between meetings.

Use breathing as your natural relaxant

If you feel stressed or anxious, perhaps before an important meeting or due to a fast-approaching deadline, take a focused moment at your desk or somewhere quiet and breathe out from your diaphragm for five seconds, hold, and then in for three seconds, hold. Repeat this five times. This will help to regulate your heart rate and clear your thinking. Sounds simple (and it is), but it’s also incredibly effective.

Stretch yourself a little

While yoga isn’t for everyone, just five minutes of basic stretching each day drastically improves physical and mental wellbeing. It increases alertness, relaxation, and helps reduce physical and emotional tension.

While these tactics may seem simple and obvious, very few professionals consciously build these resilience strategies into their daily lives; however, just like exercising a muscle, it becomes easier the more you do it, and eventually the outcomes outweigh the investment in every sense.

You experience what you think

Where does stress come from? It is not so much from your environment but what you allow your brain to think about future outcomes in your environment.

Anger? Comes from thoughts about how something has violated a rule you hold to be true.

Joy? When your brain positively reflects on an accomplishment of self or others.

Research has shown that the practice of law can habituate more pessimistic thinking. Resilient people are mindful of their thoughts, stay in the present and so have the ability to catch, check and change their thoughts into being more realistic and optimistic. This is easier to do when you have the aforementioned physical practices incorporated into your regular daily life.

Stuart Taylor is committed to achieving high-quality outcomes for our clients. Since 2003, Stuart has engaged and inspired through his workshops, keynotes and conference presentations more than 20,000 people globally. A diagnosis of brain cancer in 2002 led Stuart on a personal journey back to health. Stuart became a strong advocate for incorporating cultural practices into organisations to nurture wellbeing. In 2003 he founded The Resilience Institute in Australia - now called Springfox. 

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