At one end of the spectrum, there is a growing number of top partners who are feeling the pressure of burnout and work overload and on the other end of the spectrum, there is a high dropout rate of associates who also are feeling overwhelmed.
For the Baby Boomer generation (Boom 1946 – 64), mental health at work was very much taboo and technology was a novel concept. These senior leaders and partners of the profession are used to a culture of digging deeper and working harder and harder. This culture eased with the Millennial generation (1980s – early 2000) who began to embrace technology and became more ‘wellness aware’. Now the latest GenZ or iGen, for whom self-empowerment is the ‘new norm’ desire to work ‘smarter’ by embracing the assistance of A.I (artificial intelligence) and V.R (Virtual reality). The generational differences are causing expectational conflicts but there is one theme underpinning it all.
Today’s technologically omnipresent world is a shared stress for all generations. The always ‘switched on’, always digitally connected world causes a fragmenting of awareness. Our gadgets and digital ways of working mean our attention jumps around. Not only does our personal and professional life require our mental energy and attention, but so does the digital world, which means we are constantly ‘interrupting ourselves’. Interruption of focus causes us to use up finite mental energy, lose productive output and increase overwhelm and exhaustion.
Despite the cultural differences between the generations, the end result is the same: growing workloads, chronic stress and anxiety, lack of adequate rest and recovery are contributing to psycho-physical consequences that impact all generations’ wellness and performance.
To go from a ‘burnout prone’ culture to one of ‘sustainable high-performance’, key players in Law need to recognise themselves as high-performers. Most often when we are asked to think of high-performers our minds jump to famous athletes in various sports, but rarely do we think of our legal career-selves as high-performers.
The training methodologies of athletes 10 to 20 years ago are fundamentally different to those utilised today. Training methodologies have developed from grit your teeth and work harder, to a ‘smarter not harder’ style of training. How athletic training differs today is not so much in the evolution of new exercises, but in how athletes now rest and recover in response to stress.
“Interruption of focus causes us to use up finite mental energy”
But how often is the importance of ‘Rest’ overlooked? Indeed, stress is not all bad; stress enhances focus, motivation and drive – it is about finding the right balance. The best athletes prioritise recovery just as much as they prioritise time on the field or in the gym. Those who do not figure out the right balance between stress and rest either burn out (too much stress, not enough rest) or plateau (not enough stress, too much rest). Becoming a life-long sustainable high performer is about figuring out the right balance between stress and rest.
Each person will have a unique balance, but we all need to schedule in and prioritise rest. In my coach-consultancy role I promote the three Rs as non-negotiables to prevent and/or overcome burnout and sustain high performance. The three Rs are: Rest, Release and Resilience.
The act of Rest is not just about sleep, even though sleep is extremely important and often neglected. Rest encompasses a variety of techniques that help slow our brain waves down and turn on our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. Rest techniques can be as short as one to five minutes long but are key in that they allow our body to move out of a stressed state and into a relaxed state. Rest turns what would be chronic stress into acute stress; that is from constant stress to stress broken up by recovery. Acute stress we can recover from and continue to perform, but chronic stress is what depletes us.
One of the most powerful Rest modalities being researched in neuroscience currently is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR), which aims to deliberately shift one’s state to be able to relax quickly and deeply. By just taking a few minutes out of your day after a busy period to implement an NSDR routine you can significantly improve your mood and focus. You can download free apps for daily guided meditation, guided hypnosis or guided yoga Nidra which are all NSDR modalities- even just a few minutes can make a huge difference.
Release encompasses a variety of exercises that help to reduce muscular tension throughout the body; they help to rid the body of stress hormones and stimulate relaxation-inducing hormones. Release is a proactive form of letting go of the stress that has built up and got ‘stuck’ in the body. Think of how stiff your neck or lower back may get after a long stressful day of work. By performing a Release exercise it helps to remove that stress from muscles throughout your body. Regular exercise is the most straightforward form of Release but exercise can be as simple as doing 10,000 steps a day.
Resilience exercises build our capacity to tackle problems head-on, overcome adversity and adapt successfully to challenges and stressors. Mental and emotional resilience is something that we can build and strengthen over time and can be done through a variety of exercises.
The most time tested way to increase and build one’s resilience is the use of social support and connections. Social support and connections provide a sense of purpose, belonging and social bonds have been studied by neuro-scientists as being beneficial in building resilience. There are mindfulness techniques which can also greatly improve resilience, such as time in nature and hot and cold exposure, intermittent fasting, breathwork and endurance training.
To take action and start integrating the above today, remember to implement daily Rest, Release and Resilience strategies. The key is to make consistent incremental daily changes rather than inconsistent big ones – for instance:
Find the small daily changes that fit into your work-life and you will see an improvement in your overall holistic wellness, which in turn will positively impact your cognitive performance.