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Cracking up

1 May 04

Suggestions for coping with stress at work, and where to go for help if that is needed

Impossible billing targets, long hours at the office, a bullying partner – the life of a solicitor is not always a happy one. And work-related difficulties occur right across the spectrum of practice – a recent report on morale in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service found that 39% of employees complained of regular stress.

Stress affects virtually everyone at some time in their life. As well as the emotional and psychological disruption it causes, stress-related medical problems are becoming increasingly common: the wider national trend, according to the Health and Safety Executive, is that days lost due to stress-related illness have more than doubled in the last seven years. The HSE are now taking work-related stress very seriously, and have produced booklets, “Tackling Work Related Stress – a managers’ guide” for larger organisations, and “Tackling work related stress – a short guide” for smaller ones, providing advice to help businesses tackle the problem.

So it is important to treat the symptoms of stress before they result in more serious illness. If unchecked, stress can lead to musculo-skeletal problems, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.

Everyone reacts to stress differently, but there are some common effects that help us to recognise it. Some of the symptoms are: anger; apathy; depression; loss of appetite; lack of concentration; loss of sex drive; and increased smoking and drinking – the law is the fourth worst profession for alcohol-related deaths.

If stress gets a hold, it is easy to be sucked into a vicious circle where low energy levels and lack of organisational commitment lead to poor time management and a growing backlog of work – resulting in even greater stress levels.

It seems that we are becoming increasingly dependent on medication as a solution to the problem. Between 1993 and 2000 the amount spent in England and Wales on drug treatment for stress rose from £47 million to £310 million. At the same time numbers of GP consultations were significantly down. This may reflect the increasing availability and sophistication of relevant medication. On the other hand, it may suggest that GPs have less time to spend on face-to-face discussion and support, though there are a number of simple (but effective) psychotherapeutic tools which can be deployed in such a setting. And it may also indicate a longer-term reliance on medication as a way of attacking the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

If you feel that you are suffering from stress, try to identify the aspects of your life that are causing it. Sometimes you may not be able to change or avoid them, but at other times simple lifestyle changes can make all the difference. Within the office, environmental factors such as tidiness, air quality, light and personal space can all help relieve feelings of tension. Time management is crucial but comes in many guises – proper prioritising, dealing with interruptions, deciding what can be delegated, identifying your prime time and making best use of it, to name but a few.

Outside of work, a healthy diet, some form of exercise three times a week, having something enjoyable to do each day and using relaxation techniques all help to provide that essential balance to help keep on top of stress.

LawCare is a charity set up to provide health support and advice to lawyers suffering from impairments such as stress, addiction or depression. Almost three-quarters of solicitors who call their free and confidential helpline feel the stress in their life is unbearable, but LawCare’s network of volunteers can provide provide information and advice about managing stress in any or all of the ways mentioned above, and one-to-one support as you make the decisions and changes necessary to regain control of your life. If appropriate they can refer you to a counsellor or treatment centre.

In addition LawCare is happy to give free (except for expenses) presentations to firms about managing stress in the office environment. For confidential help please call 0800 279 6869, or to arrange for a presentation or ask for more information about LawCare call 0870 774 3663.

They also have a comprehensive website at

It is important to remember, however, that you can never fully protect yourself against ill health, and private health care insurance remains a popular part of benefits packages. Should you need medical attention, being a BUPA member can bring you peace of mind in knowing you have access to quality health and care cover when you need it most. With BUPA’s medical insurance you can book your treatment at times that suit you, and you can have test results as soon as they are needed.  You can also have your own consultant throughout your treatment, which means you can make informed decisions together without squeezing everything into a 10-minute appointment.