Friday, September 30, 2011

When You Feel Trapped in Your Work

Even at a time like this, when most employed people (lawyers and others) are happy to have a job, we recurrently meet lawyers who feel suffocated and stuck in work settings that we have come to refer to as “toxic.” It is crucial, in such circumstances, to work toward a plan of escape, whether that is ultimately by way of leaving the job, effecting changes on the job, or finding better ways to cope, internally, with the situation.

Sometimes, as Sartre asserted in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” While the most obvious hellish person at work may be the boss (such as a law firm partner who applies great pressure but offers no support, or an experienced but burnt out attorney who offloads all difficult cases to his/her underling), coworkers, support staff, and draining clients can also exert a poisonous effect.

Sometimes the accumulating impact of spending months or years in such circumstances results in observable symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression, manifested for example by sleeplessness, poor concentration, feeling paralyzed in thinking, or even getting panic attacks. (The self-tests at can be one way to evaluate these syndromes.) Less overt are effects such as increased physical illness, deteriorated relationships, and declining self-esteem or regard for the profession.

One of the most useful psychological tools ever to come down the pike is the Serenity Prayer, well known to anyone familiar with 12-step meetings, and originally composed (with slightly different wording but making the same points) by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It distinguishes between things that are outside an individual’s realm of influence, which must be accepted (e.g., the culture of this law firm is unlikely to change) , and those areas in which a person does have potential impact, if one summons the “courage” (e.g., self-assertion with key figures who may have the capacity to listen, acquiring new skills, getting outside help, or changing one’s own ways of perceiving and defining negative situations). Both approaches require developing a level of awareness/ability to self-observe, and a degree of cognitive flexibility.

A major advantage to gaining this kind of perspective is that it can decrease the sense of entrapment and passivity, which in turn is likely to improve one’s mood, outlook, and readiness to grasp opportunities for positive change when they present themselves. It is also important to realize that we are each responsible to prioritize our own wellbeing (including health, some kind of balanced life, some gratification in each day) – external people or environments may severely challenge our personal needs, but they do not hold all the cards.

Many lawyers seem to forget that they need not be completely alone in facing such stresses. Although no one, including LCL, can swoop in and come to the rescue, there is value in having sources of information, new perspectives and tools, emotional support, etc. There is no reason to go it alone.