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Stress in the Legal Sector – Are We Reaching Crisis Point?

4 July 2019 7 min read

stressed employee in legal business

If you work in the legal sector, you have definitely felt stressed in the past month. Indeed, you may even have felt stressed in the past few hours. Maybe you feel stressed right now…

All businesses must contend with stress in the workplace. But those who work in the legal sector experience more stress than most, which can be a major challenge to any firm’s efficiency.

This is your guide to managing stress in the legal sector. We’ll take a quick look at the scale of the problem, before offering some advice on some steps you might take to minimise the impact that stress has on your firm.


Why Do We Feel Stressed?


why do we get stressed


Everyone gets stressed. Stress serves an evolutionary function. It primes your body to act in the face of a threat, like a hungry tiger.

In the modern world, we don’t routinely face hungry tigers. But our brains can’t tell the difference between potential death and, say, a looming work deadline. We respond to both by producing stress hormones to induce that vital fight-or-flight mechanism. You know that missing that work deadline won’t kill you. But your brain doesn’t necessarily agree…

We live busy lives filled with pressing commitments and huge responsibilities. Every day, we put ourselves in situations that the brain can’t help but interpret as life-or-death. We’re getting stressed about everything, and it’s making us feel awful.

According to research by the Mental Health Foundation, in 2018 74% of people experienced stress so severe they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Stress is natural. But an unhealthy level of stress certainly is not.


Some People Get More Stressed than Others


why are some people more stressed than others


Any person working any job will feel stressed at some point. Even if you’re paid to test pillows for softness, you’ll still have quotas to meet and decision-makers to satisfy.

But some jobs are more stressful than others. The two most stressed professions in the UK are nursing and welfare work. But coming in at number three? Lawyers.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is one of our absence management software clients. They recently completed a three-year study of stress in the UK workplace. Of the 100,000 they surveyed, 3,010 reported feeling stressed, depressed or anxious at some point in the past few years. Their study also found that lawyers and other legal sector workers tend to feel the pressure more than most.


Why Do People Get Stressed in the Legal Sector?


Why is stress in the legal sector a problem?


If you work in the legal sector, you shouldn’t have to ask why stress is so prevalent in your industry. Everyone in the legal sector must contend with huge workloads and immense weight of expectation. Every decision you make could have massive implications – not just on an individual level, but on a societal level too.

A 2014 Law Society survey revealed that a staggering 95% of employees have experienced stress at one time or another as a result of their job. Stress is common. And as we’ve established, stress is natural. But you must not let it become a problem for your firm.

The CIPD recently released its annual health and wellbeing in the workplace report. In 2018, stress was the second-highest cause of short-term absence at 8%, and the third-highest cause of long-term absence at 22%.

Something clearly must be done. But if stress comes with the territory in the legal sector, what can you do to minimise the impact of stress on your business?


Kate Thorpe Therapy & Coaching


kate thorpe therapy coach


How to Manage Stress in the Legal Sector

Treat stress in the same way you do for other aspects of your business, like finance or IT. Have a strategy in place to deal with it – something that is project-managed with a full understanding of the problem, and a set of goals to achieve so you can measure success.

Avoid the “scattergun” approach. Initiatives like a telephone helpline, or employing a therapist to perform desk massages, or offering a gym subscription subsidy are cheap and simple to arrange. But they rarely impact long-term stress for all. The effects of a one-off massage are short-lived. Subsidised gym memberships usually only appeal to those who are already-fit and healthy, and most people are not comfortable talking about deep and meaningful things on the phone with a stranger.


Understand the Problem

To create a proper strategy, first you’ll have to understand the problem. Ask the right questions, do your research, and use data you already have to provide the focus for your efforts. Data might include recruitment costs and staff turnover. And as 57% of sickness absence is stress /mental health-related, check your sickness absence statistics too.

Consider conducting an anonymous Wellbeing Audit for your team and ask them what they feel are the biggest challenges, stressors, and issues. What ideas do they have for reducing stress? On a scale of 1-10, what is their average stress level?


Set Goals Based on Feedback

You can then use all this information to create your goals for your Wellbeing Program. For example, you could aim to reduce stress-related sickness absence by 20%, or to retain your best people for longer, or to reduce the average stress levels. It’s useful to aim for a combination of hard and soft goals.

Consider then how to achieve your goals. For example, if the audit revealed a management issue, is leadership coaching an option? Have your managers been promoted to management because they were good at their jobs, or have they actually been trained to be managers?


Achieving Your Goals

Is stress a taboo topic in your business, or do you adopt a culture of openness and acceptance? Would teaching your team how to manage their own stress on a practical level help them to take some control of their own mental health? Stress Management Coaching or Workshops can be hugely effective, so long as they’re delivered in the right way and followed up appropriately, with measured goals and outcomes.

Also look at less obvious things, like the work environment. Think of the temperature, the use of space, and the availability of natural light. Do you hot desk, or do you allow for “nesting” and familiarity?

Consider email policies. Given everyone’s caseloads, is it realistic to go for a 24-hour or less response commitment to email? Would a “telephone time out” on a rota give your teams a break? How are targets calculated? Do they include the human factor and account for holidays and other absences? Do you accept that no one works at their peak 24/7? Or are your targets they based purely on business need and best-case scenarios?

A “Work Hard, Play Hard” approach might have worked in the 1990s, but things have changed since then. Are your people on-call evenings and weekends, and do they have email on their phones? Of course, you want your people to work hard, but unplugging and recharging is necessary too. It’s practically impossible for chronically stressed people to work effectively.


Take Expert Advice

There are many things you can do to reduce and manage the stress in your business and your people. Getting the right combination is the key.

Taking advice from experts in finance, IT and management is a given in business. So when implementing your wellbeing strategy, if you don’t have the expertise in your business, why not also take advice from a mental health expert?


You’re Not Eliminating Stress – You’re Managing Stress

You can’t eliminate stress altogether, and nor should you want to. But a robust wellbeing or stress management strategy won’t just increase loyalty, productivity, and profit. It will also help make your firm a market leader, you’ll attract the best talent, and you’ll future-proof your business.


About Kate

Kate Thorpe is a therapist and stress management coach with specific experience in the legal sector as a former solicitor herself. For more information on Kate’s services please follow the links below;

Facebook: facebook.com/katethorpecoaching

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/kate-thorpe


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Katrina Bennett People Director at edays
July 4, 2019

Katrina is edays' own People Director with significant UK and international experience in delivering people strategy and value-adding HR solutions across a range of organisations and sectors (including Arriva, Boots, Rolls Royce, the utility and charity sectors). Katrina has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and is CIPD qualified.