Tired, Hungry and Stressed –
the Life of the Modern Professional
By Sonia Hickey
Lawyers are amongst the most highly stressed professionals around the world. So who better to provide advice on how to keep calm and manage your career?
It probably wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that lawyers are amongst the most highly stressed (and also depressed) professionals. And it’s relatively easy to see why. First of all, lawyers are trained to be pessimistic – they’re expert at looking for all the potential problems before they set about finding solutions.
On a daily basis, lawyers tend to see humanity at its worst too, and they hold an awful lot of responsibility. Often the fate of people’s lives depend on their experience and expertise. In many countries, (take the US and Australia for example}, the justice system is stretched beyond capacity too, delays and other complications only add to the pressure.
On top of that, law is a very demanding profession. Most lawyers are perfectionists too –striving to do their best, not just by their clients, but to further their own personal reputations and to maintain the high standards set by law firms.
But lawyers are not alone – employees in all professions, all over the world are feeling the effects of the modern workplace – long hours, increasing pressure and endlessly high stress levels that ultimately result in burnout or other mental health problems, like depression. We are tired, stressed and hungry. We’re sacrificing everything to keep our careers – at significant cost to our mental and physical health.
Impact of the digital age
Technology was supposed to make our lives easier, instead while it has replaced many repetitive tasks, it has also meant we’re all ‘switched on’ and ‘plugged in’ long after we’ve left the office.
Estimates suggest that today we take in about five times as much information as we did 25 years ago. This has massive consequences for our brains. Absorbing, quantifying, analysing, re-applying, communicating it…. It’s no wonder so many of us are stressed and on the brink of burnout.
For men and women, stress can manifest itself differently – for women it can come in the form of fatigue, and lack of enjoyment, in men it tends to show up as aggression, competitiveness, bullish-ness.
Needless to say, the strain eventually takes its toll – on our work productivity, enjoyment and of course, our personal lives, relationships and families, our health, and ultimately our careers – the very thing we were so focused on to start with.
Healthy versus unhealthy brain activity
A certain amount of stress is good for the human body, but too much means we get caught in our ‘reptilian’ brains – where our survival instincts live. This part of our brain is responsible for controlling our involuntary functions: the beating of our hearts, the working of our organs, breathing. It’s in charge of our flight, fight or freeze mechanism in the face of danger, and the actions and emotions that spring from the reptilian brain are automatic – we don’t even think about them.
We need this part of our brain – it’s the part that makes us instinctively swerve a kid on a bicycle, take our hands off a hot stove, not jump over the cliff edge. But we also need all aspects of our brain to function together, in harmony, to behave as well-rounded, healthy human beings.
If we are constantly stressed, and only our reptilian brains are activated … eventually, if the stress is prolonged, other parts of the brain shut down – our ability to think and learn, our emotional responses and our intuition all virtually stop. Along with this, so does our ability to relate rationally to the people and situations around us.
And so, as simplistic as this explanation is, without a lengthy lesson in neuro science, they key, psychologists say, to keeping the reptilian brain healthy and in check, is keeping our stress levels to a minimum.
A wonderful documentary called InnSaei recently explored the effects of prolonged stress on human beings. In one very simple experiment, people were asked to spend 10 or so minutes in nature. Alone. Without devices and distractions.
Interestingly, not many made it through without getting itchy and twitchy. Such is our modern need to be ‘doing,’ rather than simply ‘being.’ And one of the significant places this mindset stems from is our workplaces – and our drive to fulfil our careers. After all, money makes the world go around and most of us want a nice home, a good life, and to be able to pay our bills.
But these days ‘being busy’ has become such a benchmark for success, that we’ve forgotten the value of being able to just switch off and relax.
So how can we turn the tide? Many workplaces are getting better at understanding the need to enable employees better balance between work and other aspects of life. But the real responsibility is our own. So just how do you keep your career on track and keep your stress levels down? Read on...
- Learn to say no.
Understand your own limitations. Really, this is the ONLY way to take the pressure off because it’s the only thing you have control over. The demands will always keep coming, your time will perpetually be limited. Work out where your priorities are and learn to delegate or say no to everything else.
- Don’t self-sacrifice.
Take regular breaks – in work hours and outside of work hours. Yes, in a day packed with back-to-back meetings it might seem impossible to ‘take a break’ but give it a try. Go for a quick walk, take in some greenery or a water view if you can – both have a calming effect on the brain. And make sure you take time after work and on weekends to completely switch off.
- Don’t get ‘Hangry’.
Eat and keep hydrated. An under-nourished body affects your energy levels and your tolerance levels. There are increasing bodies of research that show a strong link between gut health and mental health, stress and sleep.
- Develop routines.
Chaos and unpredictability just feed stress. So, take time to plan your day so when the unplanned stuff drops in, you can better manage it. Running from one crisis to another is neither productive, nor particularly enjoyable. A little pre-planning can make a big difference.
- Don’t socialise with your colleagues
Or make it only occasionally. While some of our best friendships are often formed at work, if your social circle and your work circle are inextricably linked, then you really don’t have any hope of truly taking time out, because conversation will inevitably turn back to work, and so will your concentration. Find outside interests to immerse yourself in, and spend time with family and friends not linked to the workplace.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol
We all know the lovely calming effect that a beer or a glass of wine can have at the end of a long, hard day. But if you continually over-indulge you can end up in a vicious cycle of dependency and before long, you can’t relax without a drink in your hand. The benefits of exercise as an antidote to stress are well documented, in particular the release of endorphins – the feel good ‘vibes’ in your brain.
It’s not for everyone. But most people who regularly practice meditation will tell you that it’s an instant re-boot. Any professional athlete will tell you rest days are as important as training regimes. The same goes for your mind. It does take time to develop a robust meditation practice, but even five minutes a day of no stimulation to let your brain rest will keep it healthy long term.
Managing stress is an individual thing – what works for some people doesn’t for others, but stress causes so many other physical, mental and emotional problems it’s imperative to keep it in check.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.