Episode 6 27 May 2021
How to stay healthy when you're working unhealthy hours
Principal lawyer, Geraldine Grace | Host, New Earth lawyer podcast
In this episode, I talk about how to stay physically and psychologically healthy when you're working incredibly demanding hours. Working this way often occurs for lawyers in private practice.
I'm not a health professional - instead this comes from practical experience as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer for many years in law firms. Although it would be preferable that people don't work this way at all or don't do it for long, realistically speaking it happens. When it does, taking a few simple measures will pay off for your physical and mental health, and sustainability in the long-run.
I am an experienced corporate lawyer, using the law to build purposeful, human-centred, Earth-friendly legal enterprises & ecosystems, for happier humans and a better planet.
I am also the founder and host of the New Earth lawyer podcast.
I am based in Melbourne, Australia, and an expert in enterprise governance, purpose, business & human rights and modern slavery. I established my own law practice Geraldine Grace in 2020, focussing on enterprises seeking purpose, and actors in the impact economy.
I am a legal advisor to a number of not-for-profits with a national reach in impact and purpose. I work with Boards to optimise performance and help enterprises embed purpose and integrate human rights into their business.
I have over 20 years' experience practising law in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and mainland China. I have worked for large global and Australian law firms and was a partner of a top-tier Australian law firm for several years.
I sit on the peak governing body of Australia's largest university.
[1:05] Sometimes, lawyers work extremely long hours because of urgent matters - whether a transaction, trial or a critical government inquiry.
[2:11] Working around the clock is not sustainable beyond a few weeks.
[3:34] I talk about how important it is to speak up if your team is under-resourced and there is a risk of unsafe work practices.
[5:30] Physically speaking, I recommend to keep exercising, to eat well, not to self-medicate and to keep up a daily meditation practice, even if just for a few minutes a day.
[8:24] Psychologically speaking. I emphasise that the crucial thing is resilience.
[10:23] Keep things in perspective even under stress. This will help you maintain your sense of humour, hold your temper and take it day by day. Stay grateful.
[15:33] Remember, that it always come down to people and appreciating those around you.
WorkSafe Victoria's guide for employers on preventing injuries due to work-related fatigue.
The Calm meditation app (which I use and recommend - I have no affiliation).
I also love meditating to David Hykes, visionary composer, singer, musician, recording artist, visual artist and teacher of contemplative music and meditation. His album Harmonic Meditations is exquisite.
Dr Sukhraj Dillon, a Yale-educated scientist and author of books synthesising Eastern and Western approaches to health and spirituality. He said: You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday - unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the New Earth lawyer podcast. I'm Geraldine Johns-Putra and I am your host. Today, I wanted to talk about something that's a bit more real, a bit more practical, not as abstract as some of the topics I've been speaking about recently. The reason I want to do this is because I want to give some tips based on my experience, because I am aware that many lawyers who may be watching this are actually working incredibly long hours at times. And having done that, myself, I just have some perspectives to offer.
You may have seen my interview with John Chisholm, recently, where we talked about the billable hour model. The billable hour model can at times lead to lawyers working insane hours, because of the incentive it provides for people to work as many hours as they can. Sometimes, however, it's not just about trying to meet a target. Sometimes there is a large transaction, or a large case, for example, a government inquiry or Royal Commission, we've seen several of those where the deadlines are tight, and where people really have to work around the clock to meet them. And there are legal teams that have gone through this a lot in the last few years. So that's what I want to address. How do you stay sane when you're working what I will call insane hours, around the clock. weekends, the whole lot, for weeks on end.
The first thing I want to say about it is that, in my view, no one can work at such a pace for more than a few weeks. And I'm going to suggest four to six weeks. Because if you're looking at working for months like this at a stretch, then I think that that's going to do some psychological and physical damage to the individual. A team should be large enough so that people within it can rotate and people who have been doing intense hours for a stretch can have some relief. Even at partner level, ideally, there should be no role that is so pivotal, that a person can't step out for say 48 hours and take a complete break. Because exhaustion is a real thing. I have seen it firsthand. I have seen people hospitalised due to working extremely long hours on transactions for months under intense pressure. When people suffer it, they take a long time to recover. So look after yourself because your health is the most important thing that you have.
If you're part of a team and you're at a more junior level, and you don't think it's adequately resourced, then I urge you to speak to someone. Ideally, it'll be a partner. Or it could be someone whom you trust in your human resources or talent or people department or your general counsel or in-house risk department. If you don't feel like your concerns are being taken seriously, then put it in writing. Send an email. You don't have to be rude about it but you need to be honest about your concerns. That comes might I say before any fear about being penalised. Because if you don't speak up, you are probably doing a disservice to yourself and possibly to your team members. Remember that directors of companies, partners, leaders of law firms have legal responsibilities to look after their people and provide a safe workplace.
Okay, so what can you do first, I'm going to say get physical exercise. Now you might say, Geraldine, that's unrealistic, I've barely got enough time to sleep, let alone go and get some exercise. I'm not talking about taking an hour out every day because when you're working the sorts of hours I'm talking about that can be unrealistic. I'm talking about maybe every couple of days, taking 15 minutes to go for a walk, or quick run. If you're a cyclist, go and do half an hour, 45 minutes out on the bike, or on a stationary bicycle. Or a yoga workout at home, something to get into your body and out of your mind and out of the stress. It's important to stay physically healthy.
Eat well. It's really tempting, when you've got barely enough time to do essential things and barely enough time to think about what you're going to eat, to choose healthy options. But if you don't do it, you will regret it. Sometimes there's no choice, sometimes you're in a meeting room in a negotiation and the only thing available is pizza that somebody orders. Well, then it's better to make sure that that you get some nutrition than nothing at all. But when you can, these days with delivery options, it's much easier to make sure that you choose a healthy meal.
Don't self medicate. If you're having trouble dealing with the stress, and you're feeling the need to choose something artificial to take the edge off, then that's a time to get help. Because that will have long term repercussions for your health and your sustainability and your ability to perform and to progress in this profession.
Meditate. That's an important one to me, I didn't always meditate. I'm one of those who was a fairly lazy meditator. But I have come to it now. And I wish that I had done it all of those years ago when I was working long hours. Because it's it's like a superpower. I meditate now for 20 minutes in the morning, every morning, first thing, and it's like being recharged. It's like dipping into crystal clear waters and feeling completely refreshed. I can't really explain how it works. But all I can say is that it works. And again, you don't have to do it for 20 minutes like I do. Although I have to say there's a saying that you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you're too busy, then you should do it for an hour. Which is to say that if you're one of those people who's running around frantically, then that's when you need more meditation time. But you know, we're trying to deal with practical advice. If you're in the middle of a torrid time working, then 10 minutes is maybe all you need, get some calming music, get an app, perhaps the Calm app, which I really recommend. You could do either music or a guided meditation, but just take that time out to completely clear your mind to completely tap in to yourself, apart from the work, apart from the lawyer persona, but who you are, because that's going to enable you to get through the rest of the day.
So much for the physical aspects. Psychologically speaking, you need to be in my opinion, resilient. There's a difference between being resilient, and being hard. I didn't know the difference. And I paid for it. I braced myself all the time, I was determined. I was going to get in the hours, get the job done, but I kind of gritted my teeth through it. And I wasn't resilient. I was in fact brittle. When anything went wrong, I couldn't face it. I would catastrophize because I was brittle. I thought I was being tough, but it wasn't very deep. If you're really resenting the hours you're putting in, then that's probably a sign that you need to stop. Ideally, you will understand why you're choosing to work significantly long hours for a particular stretch of time. It might be that you want to progress in your job, it might be that you really love the work and you don't want to let down the team. It might be that you have a higher purpose and you believe that working these hours is going to get you there. Whatever your reason, tap into it and rely on it. Because that's going to help you accept why you're choosing to work at a significant cost to yourself. And you can also tell yourself that it's not going to be forever, because it shouldn't be.
The best ways that I have found to be resilient is to keep things in perspective, first of all. Right? It's just a job. You work for just a law firm. It might sound like sacrilege, but it's true. I remember my elder sister, having a conversation with her when I was going on and on about how important my work was. And she said, Geraldine, it's just a law firm. And those simple words really stayed with me because she was absolutely right. I wasn't really saving the world, even though I thought I was. So keep it in perspective. That's going to help you when things go go wrong. It's going to help you do the right thing. If you do make a mistake, whether it's big or small, you can fess up, talk to someone, and you will find a solution. I worked with a very experienced M&A partner, he had about 40 plus years experience. And he used to say, I've never seen a problem that didn't have a solution. And it's true. So remember that.
The other thing is, keep your sense of humour. You're going to need it. If you're going to be working long hours, would you rather do it in a light-hearted mood? Or would you want to do it with anger or grumpiness? There's always going to be the ability to see the lighter side of things. Obviously, you want to be appropriate. But if you can see the funny side of things that's going to help you get through.
Don't be a jerk. We all are going to lose our tempers at some point if we're under incredible stress. But if you can, before you reach that level, take some time out, go for a walk or get some fresh air. Take five minutes, it's just five minutes, whatever you need to do. However, if you do lose it, apologise. You need relationships with your team members - every part of the team, not just the other lawyers, but all of the people in a law firm who support lawyers and do an equally important job - you need good relationships with them. Because you need to be relying on each other, you're soldiers in the trenches, you need to know that that person has your back and vice versa.
Take it day by day. If you're looking at say a stretch of six weeks, where you're going to be working those incredible hours, then don't think about the six weeks, because it's going to be hard to focus on the job at hand, if you do that. People like to say, it's a marathon, not a sprint. And that's actually a really good saying. That's why you hear it all the time. And I can speak to that because I've run a few marathons. And I can tell you when you're running at mile five, you do not think 20 miles ahead. You do not think I'm going to have to cover that 20 miles because mentally, it will do you in. You just focus on what's ahead of you. Step by step. That's how you finish a marathon.
I'm going to say also about resilience that gratitude is really helpful. You, like I said, you should ideally have some reason why you're choosing to do this and be grateful for the opportunity that this is giving you to get closer to the purpose or the goal that you have in mind. You're learning all the time. What I learned in major transactions was invaluable. I learned how to cope under pressure, make decisions, retain accuracy, retain my skills as a lawyer, even when I was stressed or tired. I learned when I needed to count on team members. I learned from senior lawyers who gave me so much in terms of the skills that I still need and use as a lawyer today. It'll teach you discipline, and determination. It will teach you how you can dig deep. All of those things built character, in addition to the skills that you will learn from the technical perspective.
Finally, remember that it's about people. So you're going to be away from your loved ones, you're going to have to tell them that for a period of time, you're going to be hard to catch, impossible to see. Make a commitment to catch up with them properly and act on it when it's over. But the people around you stay connected to them. These other people, as I said, who are in the trenches with you, you will build bonds with them that will stay with you. More than professional bonds, really deeply personal bonds, because you will remember that you went through fire together. I have friendships from my times on deals, and I know that I can always count on those people.
So that's what this episode has been about. I hope it's been helpful. I just wanted to say, if you have liked this episode, then like it or subscribe to one of the New Earth lawyer, social media channels. Otherwise, take care of yourself, and I will see you next time. Bye now.