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Human resources: Stress Busters

Every Issue

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2010 84(1/2) LIJ, p.73


Regular practice of various techniques can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with stress.

Stress can be defined as “forces from the outside world impinging on the individual”.1

Stress is natural and can potentially help us learn and grow if channelled effectively. Conversely, it can cause us significant short and long-term issues.

Prolonged, unexpected and unmanageable stresses are the most damaging and have the potential to affect us negatively, both professionally and personally.

Unmanaged stress can lead to mental health concerns including family and work problems and the presence of physical symptoms or serious health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death and disability in Australia.2

With a little guidance and a greater awareness of self-help strategies, you can tackle negative stress head on.

If you are able to pinpoint what causes you as an individual to feel stressed, you are more likely to be aware of the triggers and can put in place strategies to ensure these triggers are monitored and controlled.

Triggers can include:

  • career development (job insecurity, inadequate pay, lack of status, uncertainty about your future);
  • job content and satisfaction (too much or too little work, impossible targets, lack of variety in your job);
  • colleagues (unsupportive colleagues, no friends among colleagues whom you can talk to);
  • work schedule (inflexible, long or anti- social hours, long distance commuting);
  • firm’s culture (lack of support or supervision, claims pending on you or the firm);
  • money (excessive debts, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, financial concerns);
  • illness (health fears, exhaustion, problems overcoming minor ailments, slow recovery);
  • time management (large “to do” list, full diary, sense of urgency);
  • spouse/partner (frequent arguments, unfair sharing of chores, little time alone together, outside pressures);
  • family (responsibility for family decisions, children or elderly parents to care for, abuse in the past);
  • house (unsatisfactory accommodation, recent or impending house move, too little space, growing list of chores and things that need to be fixed); and
  • social life (too many/too few social commitments, feeling guilty at neglecting friends over work).

Each person reacts differently when presented with stressors and each person needs to find strategies that will work best for them.

Below are some suggestions for a plan of attack when feeling overwhelmed.

Possible strategies for home and work

It is strongly recommended that strategies be implemented as part of your lifestyle to avoid getting stressed in the first instance as well as managing stress before it becomes detrimental to yourself or your work performance.

  • Eat healthily and exercise regularly. It is recommended that you exercise at least four times a week for at least 20 minutes.
  • Give up smoking.
  • Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol.
  • Learn to relax and unwind, perhaps by meditating or better still by catching up with your spouse, partner, children or friends about non-work related interests.
  • Get a decent night’s sleep – the longer the better.
  • Plan and book a holiday with your family or friends, and ensure that the office knows that you will be off for at least a week no matter what crisis occurs. Use your full holiday entitlement. The LIV offers members a fee paying locum service for firms requiring a locum while solicitors are on extended leave.3
  • Consider keeping a “stress diary” over a period of two to three weeks. Note incidents that left you feeling stressed, your bodily reaction to these stressors and any other pertinent information. You can then look back over the observations, and possibly pinpoint triggers.

Time management strategies for work

  • Be realistic about deadlines. It is far better to be honest and upfront and tell people realistic (and sometimes unwelcome) time frames. Also, learn to say “no” gracefully. This is often seen as difficult, however, the LIV can provide some invaluable tips to ensure working relationships continue to be harmonious.4
  • Build some “breathing space” into your day. When you plan the work you will do, leave a good hour or so for those little things that crop up.
  • Change activities regularly. If you are doing a lot of computer work, for instance, make a phone call or speak to a colleague.
  • Take short work breaks. Walk around the office or have a cup of coffee or better still a glass of water.
  • Take a proper lunch break and do not work while you are eating.
  • If a task seems overwhelming, break it down into bits and deal with the components one at a time.
  • Do one thing at a time.
  • If you are getting impatient about something, ask yourself why you are letting it annoy you. Take some deep breaths and relax. Deep breathing slows your heart rate, eases the “flight response” and gives you some perspective and quality control.
  • Ensure you get up on time. Try putting your alarm clock across the room so that you have to get up to turn it off.
  • Leave for work a few minutes early. You’ll be less stressed at red lights and by late trains, and if you do get there early you’ll have a few peaceful minutes before the phone starts ringing.
  • Prioritise! Put all the things you have to do in order of importance. Put aside every- thing you’re not going to be able to deal with today. Then gather all the information, files, documents and telephone numbers you’ll need for the day’s work. You will feel more in control and less stressed.
  • If a matter arises, such as a phone call, which isn’t important, don’t be afraid to say: “This isn’t a good time, please call back later”.
  • Don’t subscribe to journals you never have time to read.
  • Try not to take work home. This not only increases your levels of stress at home but has the potential to affect your home life.

Stress management techniques

Meditation exercises

Meditation, if done correctly, has the ability to clear one’s mind and this promotes a sense of calm and heightened awareness. Studies show that regular meditation can be a powerful healing tool and can help ward off the negativity that stress can create.

With all forms of meditation, it is recommended that you find a quiet place away from distractions such as computers, phones and colleagues who may feel the need to interrupt.

Body awareness
  • Sit, feet on the ground, back reasonably straight, but not too rigid.
  • Concentrate your whole attention on what you feel physically in your body.
  • Don’t think, just focus on what you feel.
  • You may begin with your feet and work upwards, spending a moment or two on each part of your body.
  • If you feel an itch, discomfort or want to move, acknowledge it, tell yourself “it’s alright” and try not to move.
  • If you become aware of thoughts or questions, treat them as an itch! Acknowledge them but then go back to concentrating on the physical feelings in your body.
  • Stay with this exercise until you have focused on all of your body and then, most importantly, let go.
Slow rhythmical breathing
  • In the same position, relaxed with your back straight, concentrate your attention on the physical feeling of breathing in and breathing out.
  • Do not deliberately change your breathing although you may find that it does change naturally, becoming slower and deeper as you concentrate more on this natural body response.
  • Should this exercise make you feel breathless, abandon it.
  • Do not be surprised if this exercise makes you feel drowsy – it means that it has made you calm down and relax.
  • Do not moralise or judge yourself during these exercises, just let go. The moral of the story is to relax and not think too much about anything in particular.
Listening to sounds and environmental noise technique
  • Listen to the sounds – the traffic in the distance or the little sounds in your office or room. Don’t push them away as irritants; they are part of your life and you will need to accept them.
  • Put your hands over your ears and listen to your breathing. Listen to your thoughts and feelings, acknowledge them and let them go. Don’t push them away as irritants; they are part of your life so again you will need to accept them.
  • Go back and listen to the external and internal noises. Listen to the nuances, to the pitch and intensity of the sounds, and then let them go.
  • Let your mind be quiet and free from thoughts.
“Be still” technique
  • With your mind and body still, remain at peace for as long as it is appropriate. Focus on the stillness. If you are fortunate enough to have your own office, sit in your office, turn off the light and practise being still.
Stretching away stress

There are many short exercises which can help to relax you. Here are just a few. The most important point is not to hold any position for very long. Pain is not gain in this area. Just hold the position to a point where you start to feel the tension, then take ten deep breaths and relax.

Back and shoulder stretch

Stand facing the wall and place your hands on the wall shoulder width apart. Your toes should point forward and your knees should be slightly bent. Lean forward, lowering your head between your arms until you can feel the stretch across your upper back, shoulders, neck and arms.

Hand stretch

To release the tension in your hands, stand and hold your left arm straight in front of you, putting your left hand up as though you were a policeman stopping the traffic. Then put the palm of your right hand against the tips of your left fingers and gently pull your left hand back towards your forearm. Continue doing this until you feel tension across your fingers and the underside of your wrist. Hold this position for ten deep breaths and then change hands.

In summary, workplace and personal stress is a certainty. You can rest assured that at one point you will experience the ebbs and tides of stress. However, there are some practical methods to consider introducing into your busy life which help combat the stress.

Practise a few regularly and in no time you will be the master of your stress.


KIRSTEN VAN DE HOEF is the LIV’s Human Resources coordinator. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit www.liv.asn.au/Practicing-in-Victoria/Practice-Management/Maintaining-a-Practice/Human-Resources.aspx. The LIV website has a series of Fact Sheets available for downloading which cover all aspects of mental health, from personal and workplace stress, anxiety disorders to depression. See www.liv.asn.au/Getting-Legal-Advice/LawCare for more information.

1. See, for example, www.lawcare.org.uk/stressand depression.htm.

2. See www.heartfoundation.org.au/SiteCollection Documents/ABS%20Media%20Release.pdf.

3. See www.careers.liv.asn.au/content.asp?contentid=5.

4. See www.liv.asn.au/PDF/GettingAdvice/LawCare/LawCare_Stress.aspx.

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