Workplace stress is increasingly becoming a larger part of the conversation since the pandemic. And against the backdrop of hustle culture, reports indicate that the number of people seeking help with stress or anxiety has increased by 55%, according to a study by a mental health services provider in the United Kingdom. The British Health and Safety Executive indicates that in 2021 alone, 822,000 workers in the U.K. suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.
I entered law—the second most stressed-out professional in Britain, according to insurance company, Protectivity—in 2009 as an ambitious high-achiever. As a career defined by its high standards and perfectionism, it is often home to high-achievers and the ambitious few who are willing to burn the candle at both ends and make the sacrifice required to progress. But the impact stress was having on my life nearly resulted in my leaving the profession altogether. I know I am not alone.
For many in professional services and other demanding industries that attract high achievers, these statistics may come as no surprise. Reflective of my experience as a lawyer, I’m sure they are no stranger to the long hours, competitive work environments, and the monumental pressure of meeting targets. And, while some thrive under this intensity, many are battling with burnout.
Today, as the founder of my own law firm, I’m relieved I didn’t leave. But I know I couldn’t have done it, without learning to manage stress. So, how did I do it? And how can you do it too?
The sources of stress
Stress is our body’s response to pressure. The reaction is essentially a last-ditch attempt at letting you know that you’re over-committed, over-stretched, and overwhelmed. Stress is often a sign you’ve pushed yourself too far without making time to consider whether what you’re doing is sustainable, both professionally and personally.
Have you had difficulty controlling your temper? Are you struggling to sleep? Is concentrating on the work at hand an impossible task? You could be pushing yourself to a limit that’s not worth crossing. As ambitious high achievers, we ultimately want to go the distance, but I guarantee going the distance is impossible when struck with migraines, low moods, anxiety, and irritability: all hallmarks signs of chronic stress.
Why a break is better than burnout
Stress is unique to each person. For some, stress is incapacitating, while others actually need a bit of stress to keep them motivated. It becomes problematic, however, when it begins to impede on your day-to-day functioning.
When I founded my own law firm, I was under an extreme amount of stress. I had young children, a business to run, and an uncertain future ahead of me. And yet, that intensity drove me to ensure my business was successful. As the years drew on, however, I began to realize that my physical and mental health was waning under chronic stress. I felt overwhelmed and over-exhausted and, behind closed doors, I struggled to see how I would be able to juggle this long term.
And so, despite it seeming entirely counter-productive, I began to reclaim time from the business. I dove into exercise, a well-documented stress-reliever. I spent time with family, which gave me a reminder of what it was all for. And I began to invest time and energy back into who I wanted to be.
The result? I became happier, better rested, and more motivated; for the betterment of my business and everyone around me.
It’s easy to slip into the idea that if you take your foot off the pedal, even for one second, everything will come crashing down. The issue with this thinking is that you are denying yourself an opportunity to refuel, despite being on a marathon of the mind for years on end.
A successful career doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process that takes time. And, while your career will survive if you take a moment to take your foot off the gas, your mental and physical health won’t necessarily if you refuse to take a moment to breathe. As professionals in a stressful field, it’s crucial to consider “refueling” as part and parcel of our ability to go the distance. Sure, our clients deserve an ambitious and hard-working partner, but they also deserve one with the room to grow, cope, and rest.
Take a step back, watch for the warning signs, and remember that a break is better than burnout.
Stamina’s role in reaching success
There’s a dangerous belief that martyring yourself for work has an intrinsic value. You’ve committed wholeheartedly, you’ve gone to extreme lengths, and there’s no doubt: It’s admirable. However, there is a difference between hard work and denying your personal needs. That is where deep stress begins to take hold, and it can be a particularly slippery slope if you’re not careful.
At the end of the day, despite our best efforts, we’re not machines. It’s important to remember that our ability to cope needs to be considered holistically. Stamina is about keeping our personal spark alive. If we’re relying on work to fuel us, we’ll run out of steam. The same is true if our lives just entirely revolve around leisure time. Put simply, balance is key.
Burying yourself in work won’t provide each part of the puzzle needed to figure yourself out, and the art of managing stress actually relies on a commitment to developing each part of what makes you, you. If exercise provides you with a reprieve, embrace it fully. If reading offers you escape, dive right in. If film, art, music, or travel inspires you, ensure you make the time for it.
Dealing with strain becomes significantly easier when we are fulfilled as people. Confronting difficulty is easier to cope with when we meet it as whole versions of ourselves. And managing stress becomes a possibility when we’ve invested the time to become bigger versions of who we are.
There’s no doubt about it: Life as a high achiever comes with its challenges. Ensure you greet those challenges as someone who has been given every possible opportunity to cope with it.
What leaders can do
While the above is helpful, I believe it’s important to address the responsibility of leaders in the fight against work-related stress, particularly as culture is one of the prevailing causes of it.
In my own business, I’ve worked hard to create an environment that prioritizes flexibility, mental and physical well-being, personal growth, and open channels of communication–all of which I believe are steps toward combating stress for high achievers. But, for industries such as mine to truly cope, all leaders need to take conscious steps toward building a culture that better supports their professionals.
I’ve experienced firsthand the impact stress can have on you, and I’ve also witnessed the incredible impact that refueling, personal growth, and flexibility can have on a team. And I can easily tell you which one resulted in happier clients, happier teams, and a more successful business overall.
Alice Stephenson is the founder of the private law firm based in United Kingdom, Stephenson Law.