Surveys continue to find “overwhelming evidence that stress, anxiety and burnout are the most prevalent issues affecting the legal profession”, and that work life balance “remains a key issue for lawyers”.
Five early signs of chronic stress include:
- Overreacting and snapping at people. Losing your sense of humour.
- Thinking about work 24/7. Decreased satisfaction. Life revolving around the job, to the point you begin missing important events with friends and family.
- Unable to focus and be productive. Performance issues, with increased errors that require correction.
- Not sleeping well.
- Pain and stiffness in your back, neck, hips and shoulders; headaches.
We all deserve to be healthy and happy, which includes having a positive level of job satisfaction. There is no trade-off required between living a well-rounded life and high job performance. Performance is in fact improved when our lives include time for renewal.
So, with the lecture over – drum roll please – our top 10 suggestions for the healthy lawyer:
10. Stay connected to your family and friends. Enjoy your career, but do not ignore or disregard your relationships, family and friends. Your spouse or partner plays a significant role in your long term health, happiness and career. One large regret for many senior lawyers is that they spent too much time at the office, and too little time with their family. The practice of law will take up many hours of your day, and it can be lonely – make time to connect with your family, friends and colleagues. Remember that positive relationships and connections are key to being happy and productive.
9. Exercise daily and sleep 7-8 hours a day. Exercise improves your physical and mental health, and enhances your mood. Exercise can be a gym workout, a run, a bike ride, a walk, or simply taking the stairs. A routine workout will improve your sleep, energy and productivity. Sleep plays a critical role to good health and quality of life, protecting your mental and physical health. Sleep deficiency will adversely impact decision making, problem solving, emotional and behavioural control, and coping with change. Take time to take care of yourself.
8. Drink water. Drinking an adequate and regular amount of water has a significant effect on energy levels and brain function. Even mild dehydration can impair mood and concentration, and increase feelings of anxiety and fatigue. In addition, drinking a sufficient amount of water each day aids in maintaining or reducing excess weight as it contributes to a reduced appetite, and may boost metabolic rate.
7. Mindfulness and Relaxation techniques. Mindfulness has been found to help ease stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is a state of enhanced attention to our thoughts and feelings that allows us to improve our focus and mental effectiveness at work. It allows us to be aware of our thoughts and feelings during a stressful day, and ensure worries and ‘fears’ are realistic – and allows us to interrupt inappropriate negative inner dialogue and replace it with constructive appropriate ones. Relaxation techniques provide support, including stretching and deep breathing. Mindfulness can increase self-awareness and insight into what makes each of us genuinely happy and healthy.
6. Limit alcohol. Take care that alcohol does not adversely impact your career with colleagues, clients, or your employer. Over the years I have known many lawyers who have unfortunately used alcohol to manage stress, to their detriment. Lawyers (and other professionals) have been known to drink alcohol to help themselves feel better – or block feelings of unhappiness, stress, worry, or depression. Self-medicating with alcohol (or drugs for that matter) will make these problems worse over time, and contribute to sleep issues (see #9 above).
5. Work a full day (productive time management), but not daily 12 hour days (workaholic), and then unplug from work. Work-life balance may at times seem unattainable in today’s legal world of 24/7 technological accessibility. However, there is a significant difference between being engaged at work and being a workaholic. Productivity does not increase with extended hours, and there is significant physical and mental health issues associated with long and taxing hours. Your brain needs a break, and this means unplugging from work daily and on weekends. Limit your work hours to appropriate limits. Beware the barrenness of a busy life (Socrates). Enough said.
4. Refuse to represent the ‘toxic / abusive client’. Appropriate steps should be taken to encourage a client to find another lawyer if they persistently cause an unreasonable emotional toll (rude, nasty, disrespectful) or intentionally break a key value or values (unethical, misrepresent, lie). Comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct, but do not take on the stress and unhappiness this type of client will bring to your practice and your life. Ideally, the client should view the parting as a mutual decision.
3. Take 4 weeks vacation annually (plan events to look forward to). A recent research study found that “just 53% of workers come back feeling rested after they’ve been on holiday”. Worse, it has been reported that 43 per cent of Canadians do not even use all of their vacation days. As a busy lawyer, you need to take your full allotment of vacation time annually to recharge your batteries both physically and mentally. Remember, your brain needs a break: unplug completely – no computers, no iPhone, and no work (see #5 above). Have fun with your family or friends. Consider it an investment – an investment in your health, your peace of mind, your relationships, and in the long run, your productivity.
2. Eat breakfast every day. A good breakfast in the morning kick-starts your metabolism and reboots blood-sugar levels so you can concentrate productively throughout the day. And no, not Captain Crunch, or a muffin – these type of foods will inappropriately spike your blood-sugar and lead to a crash within 2 or 3 hours. Have a healthy breakfast that includes protein (eggs work for me – find out what works for you and stick to it), whole grains (oatmeal, cereal), fruit (my daughters drink smoothies), or even tomatoes. This first meal of the day will provide a positive nutritious foundation, and you will be mentally and physically prepared for your day.
1. Always take the ‘high road’. Your reputation is built over many years, but can and will be lost with one bad decision. Most inappropriate decisions that negatively impact a career or a relationship are made by lawyers who are tired and stressed. A damaged or lost reputation can impact your legal career, your family, and your health.
- Do your best in all circumstances – your best is not only the result but also how you get there.
- Don’t take things personally – it does not matter how much we do to protect against criticism, other people will always have something negative to say. In these stressful situations our bodies may automatically respond with a fight-or-flight instinct, which is usually the starting point for one of those infamous stories where lawyers start behaving unprofessionally.
- Be impeccable with your word – our word is an absolute requirement to build our character and reputation. It can also be used to gossip or bring others down. If you get a reputation of habitually speaking badly of others, your own integrity will be undermined, and you will be regarded by the legal community in a manner similar to a slick tabloid magazine (entertaining but disrespected).
My best advice: Take the high road. No matter how much stress, or strain, or consternation you are facing, take the high road. You will never regret it.
– Tim Gunn
 Lawyers and Stress, CBA National Magazine, June 2013.
 Abby Wolfe, 5 signs you’re way more stressed than you realize, Business Insider, June 4, 2016.
 Travis Bradberry, Ten signs you’re burning out (and how to stop it), The Globe and Mail, May 21, 2016.
 Harvey Schachter, Meditate your way to better productivity, Globe and Mail, November 19, 2015; Julie Corliss, Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress, Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, January 15, 2016; George Hofmann, Using Mindfulness to Treat Anxiety Disorders, World of Psychology, PsychCentral.com, January 28, 2013; Therese J. Borchard, 5 Tips for Living with Uncertainty, World of Psychology, PsychCentral.com, March 5, 2013.
 Zaria Gorvett, This is why you can’t switch off at the weekend, BBC.com, July 30, 2016.
 Many Canadians don’t take allotted vacation time, Benefits Canada.com, March 24, 2014.
 Many Canadians don’t take allotted vacation time, Benefits Canada.com, March 24, 2014 [“Canada is one of the most vacation-deprived nations in the world … vacation … it’s an investment in our health, our peace of mind, our relationships, and in the long run, our productivity”.]
 David Paul, Candour: the Gift that Keeps on Giving, Canadian Lawyer, December 2012.