How much stress can we take? The answer is that it varies from person to person, stage of life to stage of life, context to context, writes Dr Bob Murray.
Josh, a partner with a major law firm, had a nervous breakdown recently. Not an unusual occurrence for a lawyer. He was taken to hospital and will be off work for a few months. He will return to work and almost certainly will suffer from another breakdown, or have a heart attack, or become diabetic, become suicidal or develop PTSD in the not-too-distant future.
Lawyers are not the most depressed: they only rank number 15 on the depression scale of major professions, with firemen, farmers and forestry workers topping the list. But they are among the most stressed, and that is increasing.
Eighty per cent of lawyers say that their job is too stressful and one in three contemplate suicide at least once a year.
How much stress can we take? The answer is that it varies from person to person, stage of life to stage of life, context to context. Any living system needs a certain amount of stress to function optimally, and for each there is a limit. A tree will bend in the stress of wind, but if the wind is too strong it will snap. Just like a human being when the pressure is too great – when, like a tree in a fierce storm, we exceed our design specs.
There are a lot of fairly simple and inexpensive things that firms can do to reduce the amount of stress among their partners and other legal staff. However, many won’t, as they don’t at present see it as part of their survival strategy. So what can you do as an individual?
Well, you could take up yoga, or meditation, or mindfulness, long walks or sex. They’re all good de-stressors. They all work, at least temporarily, but the stress will return after each because they’re not getting at the core problem.
Stress is caused by the genes controlling the stress hormone cortisol being signalled by the fear centre of the brain, the amygdala (by a slightly roundabout route). Cortisol gets the sympathetic nervous system (the flight, fright and freeze response) going. It makes the heart beat faster, it clears the mind to concentrate on nothing but the stressor. Good for confronting cheetahs, snakes, rogue elephants and client deadlines, but only over the short term.
In the longer term, if the stress continues, the heart and other organs involved (lungs etc) give up and the system collapses.
But the human system has a number of genetic stress-busters that can be called upon to mitigate the damage and bring back some sort of life-saving equilibrium. The main ones are:
• A nexus of supportive relationships. We are essentially relationship-driven creatures, largely because in our hunter-gatherer state we were defenceless without them. In many ways stress is, like depression, a cry for help. If that cry is answered, if our support network is able and willing to rally around us, we can endure far higher levels of stress. Working as a mutually supportive team, for example, is far less stressful than working alone.
• A sense of purpose. This is something that I am currently writing a book about for the Ark Group. Recent research has shown that having a strong sense of purpose, especially a sense of social purpose as opposed to familial or personal purpose, strengthens the working of the ventral striatum in reducing stress and 'turning down' the activity of the amygdala. Pursuing familial purpose alone (as many of us do when we 'put family first') can actually elevate stress. Individual purpose – for example, creating the best stamp collection in the world – does little to reduce overall stress except for the time you’re actually pursuing it.
• Time in nature. We have a genetic need to be connected to nature. Even being in a park for 20 minutes a day, for example, can reduce the symptoms of PTSD in children. Having potted plants in the office can reduce depression. And the stress reduction properties of regular walks in natural surroundings is a WOW!
• A loving pet. The curative power of domestic pets – especially dogs – has long been known. Dog owners live up to five years longer and research has shown that this is because of the stress-busting power of just being with the dog. And stroking a cat has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure – signs that cortisol is losing control of the system.
• Creative endeavours. Recent studies have shown that engaging in art, creative writing or another similar pursuit can enormously reduce stress in the short and long term. One study said that the happiest people are those that indulge in one creative activity daily.
Recent studies also recommend:
• Living and/or working in a low-rise building
• Living and working away from a busy road
• Taking public transport (especially a train) to work
• Eating six small meals a day not three big ones (even better: do without meals per se and just snack when you’re hungry)
• Avoiding flying (I wish!)
• Eating oily fish (tuna, salmon etc)
• Avoiding sugar and over two glasses of alcohol
Even lawyers are not powerless over their stress.
Dr Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.