Stress is bad - but not as bad as you think

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Stress is bad for you – but not as bad as you think, according to Inspire Group leadership consultant, Kate Reid.
Reid, who recently gave a presentation to partners and staff at DLA Phillips Fox, says it’s the way people interpret stress that’s the real issue.
“We’ve all been told for years and years about how stress is bad for us and the things that it does to our heart and how our arteries close up and all sorts of things like that,” Reid tells Australasian Lawyer's sister publication NZ Lawyer.
“But they recently did a study…where they followed people for eight years and found that those who had self-diagnosed as being in very stressful situations at work…had a 42% higher chance of dying, more than the people who weren’t in a stressful job. But the catch of it was that actually it was only those that thought of stress in a really bad way.”
Reid says this simple fact demonstrates the power of the individual mindset – and that there’s a difference between good stress and bad stress (good stress, she says, is often associated with an end goal, like finishing one’s law degree or a particularly challenging case).
However, one issue when it comes to constant stress which is of direct interest to law firms is the way in which it can affect an individual’s cognitive abilities.
“Lawyers are valued for their cognitive ability, to think deeply, quickly and smartly – but work and personal stresses and practices impact significantly on their brain’s ability to do that,” says Reid.
One major causal factor is the tendency for the human brain to remain alert to distractions
“There is a newly recognised neurological phenomenon called Attention Deficit Trait that does have links to anxiety,” says Reid. It seems to be a direct response to the hyperkinetic world we live in – too much information, too much in the in-box, too many decisions, not getting enough work done….

One of the symptoms is a constant low level of panic and guilt – something many lawyers have told me they recognise. It also impacts on people’s ability to stay organised, see the shades of grey and people start to make mistakes – not what you want in a legal office.”
All sorts of things can impact concentration, she says and one recent study indicated it can actually take as long as 20 minutes to fully regain concentration following a distraction – a fact which might prove a significant blow to those who vouch for open-plan offices (though Reid says these can be highly effective layouts so long as there are rooms available for lawyers to work in a quiet space if need-be).
So what can lawyers do to minimise distractions, improve their own efficiency levels and (hopefully) subsequently reduce stress levels?
“On a personal organisational level, [get rid of] the belief that multitasking works. It doesn’t,” says Reid. She says prioritising is a much better strategy for getting things done, as is “chunking” tasks together – say, scheduling all meetings at the very start and very end of the day, rather than scattering them throughout.
Also, while it might sound counterproductive, Reid says it’s important to step away from your desk from time to time and take a breather.

“I don’t mean procrastinating, but if you are getting stuck, taking a walk or practicing mindful meditation for ten minutes can sometimes be what you need. It gives your brain a rest and allows big picture connections to be made.”
“The single biggest recommendation [I have] would be start mindfulness meditation. It sounds very ‘hippyish’ but it’s a scientifically proven attention and focus training tool. It doesn’t take long for real benefits to start being seen – only a matter of weeks and it’s easier than going to the gym. Not only does it help with being able to switch your attention from task to task much faster, it is also great for emotional regulation.” (For meditation beginners, Reid recommends the app Get Some Headspace).
And, finally, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Reid can’t stress this enough.
“Sleep! Spending long hours in the office is counter-productive; lack of sleep impacts directly on cognitive performance, memory and mood. You’ll get far more done and to a higher quality if you’ve had a proper night’s sleep.”
Kate Reid is leadership specialist at Inspire Group.