This tragedy is starting to get sadly repetitive. Yet another major player in BigLaw has died. The chair of Baker McKenzie, who had taken a leave of absence because of “exhaustion,” passed away “unexpectedly” last month at age 56 with no cause indicated. Paul Rawlinson had been appointed global chair of the firm in 2016 and was based in London, overseeing 6,000-plus attorneys in about 80 countries. Rawlinson pushed Baker McKenzie to embrace new technologies, such as a new type of video email.
There has been much written about the wages of lawyers’ stress on our productivity, health and peace of mind. According to research from the Journal of Applied Psychology, stress has increased 20 to 25% in the last 30 years, with nearly a third of Americans rating their average stress levels as extreme (8,9, or 10 on a 10-point scale where 10 corresponds to “a great deal of stress”).
One might have seen Rawlinson’s recognition of his depleted state and his move to take a leave of absence as a promising step toward recovering. But there is also interesting research that has found that, in addition to the effects of the stress itself, our perception that stress is weighing negatively on our health makes the impact of stress on our health even more lethal.
According to the study, “Both higher levels of reported stress and the perception that stress affects health were independently associated with an increased likelihood of worse health and mental health outcomes. The amount of stress and the perception that stress affects health interacted, such that those who reported a lot of stress and also recognized that stress impacted their health a lot had a 43% increased risk of premature death.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, stressing about stress is what makes stress America’s 12th biggest killer, greater than AIDS or homicide.
So our fearful and negative reactions to our experience of stress is a factor in making that stress deadlier. Many lawyers talk about stress as a function of external factors, without examining their own reactions, which is the only part of stress that we actually have control over. How do we manage those reactions?
As one lawyer points out, this is where a mindfulness practice helps. By getting to know our individual, negative knee-jerk reactions to external stressors, we can start the process of changing our automatic thoughts and behaviors. We can reframe our negative thoughts about what stress means to our health and we can internally watch our physical changes, such as breathing and posture, when confronted with stress, and begin to modulate them intentionally. We can exercise or go outside (beyond the concrete) for a walk to help interrupt negative ruminations. We can also give ourselves the kind of care we would give someone else we cared about who was suffering from stress–whatever boosts one’s spirits. It’s as much the constant negativity as the stress that does harm.
Our condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Paul Rawlinson and our wishes for recovery to all those suffering from stressing about stress. May you rest in peace, at least some of the time.