Do you dread going to work?

For some, it’s physical. You might feel sick, or feel your stomach tensing in knots. You may have feelings of anxiety or suddenly burst into tears. You may have trouble sleeping and feel fatigued.

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Matt Oliver is a former FTSE 100 in-house lawyer who coaches dissatisfied lawyers wanting to change career. Part of this career coaching is identifying how lawyers feel about their work and helping them find ways to make positive changes to their career. 

In this post, Matt explores the feeling of dread that far too many lawyers experience.

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One of the words I hear most in my initial discussions with new career coaching clients is “dread”. It can be a dread of the work, Monday mornings, pressures from bosses and clients, or other challenging parts of the job.

I’m sure we’ve all said something similar, either to others or to ourselves. It can often come to play as deadlines approach or before a make or break meeting. 

No workplace is perfect and none of us can expect to sail through every day of the rest of our careers in bliss. However, this state becomes almost permanent for some lawyers - a feeling that constantly nags away at them.

That’s never healthy - mentally or physically.

I remember it well from my 10 years as a commercial lawyer. As junior lawyers, my housemates and I called it the “Sunday Fear”.  That feeling we’d start to get on Sunday mornings or afternoons when we realised our weekend was coming to an end. The cold reality of what Monday morning and the rest of the working week would bring.

If you have these feelings about your work, it can often impact your home life. Sadly, many lawyers can’t fully enjoy weekends or family holidays because they start to dread returning to work after them.

  • How dreading work manifests herself

    For some, it’s physical. You might feel sick, or feel your stomach tensing in knots. You may have feelings of anxiety or suddenly burst into tears. You may have trouble sleeping and feel fatigued.

    For others, it’s more about a state of mind. Perhaps you find yourself feeling bitter or angry more than you’d like. You resent friends or family members with a different lifestyle. You just can’t seem to get yourself out of bed in the morning without a massive effort of willpower.

    All of these are signs of stress and could be a sign of ensuing burnout.

  • What’s the source of your dread?

    If any of this sounds familiar, it can be helpful to try and identify the source of your dread. For some, it could be a particular and tangible gap in their working life.

    For example, your current role doesn’t allow you to utilise your core strengths. 

    Perhaps you’re not getting the training and development you need. 

    Maybe all the key decisions are made by someone else, and you have little or no autonomy or ability to make an impact.

    You may have found yourself in a toxic or bullying environment or be under the constant pressure of deadlines or billing targets. 

    You may be involved in an area of legal practice that you find emotionally difficult, such as family or criminal law.

    For others, it’s less tangible. What’s missing could be the feeling that your work has true meaning.

    Perhaps you don’t feel challenged. 

    It could be that you’re simply not interested enough in what it is you have found yourself doing.

  • Do you need immediate help?

    Some people can compartmentalise their work and home lives completely. One doesn’t affect the other, and stress and anxiety always get left firmly in the office. 

    Many successful lawyers operate like this.

    Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is how others cope with work dread. 

    Addictive behaviours around food or even social media or technology are other ways people divert themselves from the worry of work.

    However, you will know these coping mechanisms are unhealthy and unsustainable over the long term.

    If you have concerns about your physical or mental health, you should speak to your GP.

    You can also talk to someone at LawCare as they understand what you are going through, and can offer support and advice to help you.

  • Make some changes

    Inaction, being paralysed by your dread, is the worst thing you can do. So, if you can, you need to identify some things you can do to tackle it.

    Try to be clear and focused on what it is about your work that is driving your feelings. Spend some time to regularly reflect on this over a couple of weeks.

    Once you have identified the reasons, think about all your options for dealing with them other than simply resigning (which, never forget, is always a possibility). The key then is to take some actions to try and effect change.

    For example, try improving your time management. 

    Perhaps do your preparation for Monday morning on Friday, not Sunday or Monday? 

    Make sure you take all your holiday entitlement, make time for self-care, and recharge your batteries.

    On weekends and time off, make it count. Spend time with others, exercise, go somewhere new and different, try a new hobby or re-engage with an old one. 

    Don’t feel you are trapped where you are, for whatever reason. Explore your options, consider alternative career paths, talk to a career coach if you are struggling to make progress on your own. 

    It may be you can make changes to your current work that will help with the feelings of dread. If not, leaving your job doesn’t have to mean leaving the law (although for some if does). It also presents you with an opportunity to work out what you really want from your work and then explore possible career moves that will deliver that. 

  • Dread is not the price you have to pay

    Work is too big a part of our lives to dread it. And these feelings should not be seen as part and parcel of being a lawyer either. It’s ok to feel them, but they are not the price you need to pay for being part of a profession that has much room for improvement in the area of mental health at work.

    Remember, there are lots of lawyers who have moved from these feelings of dread to feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction - purely by taking some action to explore the alternatives. Let them be your inspiration.

Matt is a former FTSE100 in-house lawyer and accredited executive coach and career consultant. Visit Matt’s Law Career Plus website for his career advice and coaching for lawyers who wish to make changes to their career.

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