Stressed at work

If anyone has a visceral understanding of how high-pressure work environments make mincemeat from young graduates, it is Georgie Dent. Her first job as a young lawyer ended in a nervous breakdown and two weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

Now a well-known journalist and advocate for women, Dent is also supporting her husband (a surgeon-in-training) through the brutal demands of his work, is raising three young daughters and has just published a book (Breaking Badly) about how things fell apart during her 18-months of working in a top law firm, 12 years ago.

“I think that there is the same sort of cultural expectation in law and medicine, that you will suck up absolutely everything and you will work around the clock,” she says.

When Dent looks back at her time as a lawyer, she acknowledges that an unworkable workplace was just one element in her breakdown. She also had to deal with her anxious personality and the ravages of Crohn’s Disease – a life-long gastrointestinal disorder.

“I think, for me, it probably wasn’t avoidable. I actually think, no matter what job I had taken, I was headed for some sort of breakdown. Being in a particularly stressful job with really long hours certainly didn’t help me physically… and then mentally,” she says.

Dent’s first six-month rotation in the law firm was with a Partner who was regarded as a genius and “rainmaker”, but was actually a shouting bully. As she details in her book:

“Almost anyone who has done any work inside a large law firm will have a tale or two about a tyrannical partner. These men and women are feared and revered in equal measure: they are not afraid of throwing phones and think nothing of publicly dressing down members of their team, they expect an immediate response to every email regardless of the time it’s dispatched, and generally have everyone in their vicinity living on a knife’s edge.

“The man I worked for had had nine members of staff leave in the six months before I joined – and it was a team of six. He went hot and cold, and was aggressive, void of self-awareness and really difficult to please.”

A lack of autonomy

Dent stayed the course and then moved onto a team that was welcoming and collegiate, but the stress had exacerbated her Crohn’s, which only added to her anxiety.

Juniors such as Dent, as she was then, had been the stars of their schools and universities, but found their achievements and intellect counted for little at work.

“As the firm’s underlings, we operated at the whims of partners, senior lawyers and clients. The higher a person climbs in a law firm the greater autonomy they secure. We were on the bottom rung, which meant no autonomy at all.

“We were so lowly, in fact, that we were rarely given a glimpse of the ‘big picture’. Instead, we were often asked to complete tasks without any context, which meant we were regularly blindsided when it came to the next step.

“Having a substantive task doled out at 5.30pm with a tight turnaround wasn’t unusual – in fact, it was practically expected. The salt in the wound was when this kind of task was handed to you at the end of a quiet day, after you had been hanging around and asking for work since morning, unsure of how you could possibly meet your billable target without anything to do.”

Dent sees this lack of control as a factor in burn-outs among lawyers and doctors.

Unsafe hours for doctors

Reconstructive plastic surgeon, Neela Janakiramanan, has written about the pressures on young doctors in a column for Women’s Agenda(of which Dent is a contributing editor).

“As an intern, I learned that it is considered acceptable to work eighty hours in a week if you have the following week off, and not be paid overtime for the week worked because the average across the fortnight is only forty,” writes Janakiramana.

Janakiramana’s longest fortnight was 204 hours in twelve consecutive days, “with the majority of it on call, in the midst of a job where the average was 180 hours a fortnight. I was in my third trimester of pregnancy”.

It is worth noting that the suicide rate for doctors is twice that of the general population and a 2016 audit found 53 per cent of public hospital doctors are working unsafe hours. Mental health starts to decline after someone has worked more than 39 hours per week, according to research.

After leaving the law firm to recuperate, Dent found herself in another occupation often regarded as high-pressure – journalism – for BRW magazine. Even though she was again starting at the bottom, Dent found the experience enlightening.

“It was just so different to me, culturally,” she says.

“In editorial meetings, people were allowed to speak. In a law firm… you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. As a junior, you’re not even allowed to send an email.

“[In law firms] You’re on the leash so much and, culturally, that creates a different dynamic. I found it very refreshing to walk into other workplaces where you can still sit around the table and pitch ideas and contribute to conversations without thinking through every single word that you say.”

Longer (hours) does not equate to ‘better’

When it comes to working hours, many studies show that longer work weeks do not improve productivity. They may even make people less productive.

Dent points to the experience of Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand, which offered its 250 staff a four-day work week, while retaining their full-time wages. A study of the impact of the initiative reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance.

Company founder, Andrew Barnes, told The Guardian: “For us, this is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies… there’s no downside for us”.

Dent supports the idea that law firms “gear themselves” around efficiency, rather than time worked.

“I think then across every industry, every field, I think we need to get a recognition that we work incredibly long hours and we have to look at how that is impacting our lives as well as that work,” she says.

“It’s easy to fall into that trap of thinking that, in this line of work [law], we have to be available all the time and that’s the only way we can deliver value to clients. I just don’t necessarily think that’s true. And I think that it’s worth being a little bit bold.”

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.