Lawyers will be happier and healthier in the long-term if they are motivated in the right way, says Jessica Pryce-Jones.

In a survey of lawyers by LawCare, only 29% of respondents said they had never suffered from any emotional or addiction-related impairment. And many have decided that enough is enough. Our research shows that lawyers are 22% more likely to leave their jobs compared with their counterparts in other sectors. In a recent Australian poll 30% of the lawyers that responded said they were waiting for the right time to leave.

The notion of the billable hour, which is pretty much exclusive to the legal sector, means that lawyers have some of the longest working hours. According to a survey last year by NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, most big firms require associates to bill at least 1,900 hours a year. And some firms are now even publishing the billable hours of each lawyer in order to increase competition within the firm.

While this might seem like a good way to improve productivity, pressure is taking its toll on lawyers. And it’s impacting their levels of motivation and resilience.

Employees that lack motivation will be unable to respond effectively to a challenging working environment. The iOpener Institute has gathered and studied questionnaire responses from over 30,000 professionals across the world. From our research we can see that lawyers are 18% less motivated than the all-sector average. Motivation is part of the answer to resilience. ‘Resilience’ can be defined as the level of grit that you have available to handle situations that need more drive, focus and resolution than usual.

Resilience is linked most strongly to feelings of efficiency and effectiveness; the more effective you feel, the better placed you are to continue to deliver in tough circumstances. Our research also shows that lawyers are 11.4% less likely to feel that they are achieving their full potential. And they reported having 10% less control over their own work. Lawyers take more days’ sick leave than employees in other professional services – 47% more, to be precise. And even when legal professionals are in the office, they spend 9.3% less time on task than those in other professional services (no matter how many billable hours they rack up).

Maintaining resilience

So how can managers help improve lawyers’ feelings of effectiveness to maximise their resilience and motivation?

Proactive coping – Proactive coping is having the means in place to deal with stressful situations when they arise unexpectedly. On an organisational level, this comes from having the built-in systems to react. Legal sector employees of all levels should be involved in the development of these strategies, for example, by identifying eventualities that need to be planned for, what resources might be needed and what contingencies the organisation should be aware of.

Remember that challenges are not necessarily bad – The only way to develop resilience is to be challenged. The American sociologist Glen Elder found that children growing up in the Great Depression were much more resilient than people who faced their first testing time in life later on. It is important for employees to remember that previous scenarios where success has been achieved against the odds will help in the future.

Focus on what is working – It’s too easy to focus on what’s not working. For example all too many job appraisals and performance management systems concentrate on what’s wrong rather than fostering a sense of pride and trust. In fact our research shows that pride and trust matter more than pay or a sense of job security.

Reflect on what motivates you and your team – Consider what motivates you all to come to work and ensure your objectives and your strengths are all aligned. If these are all aligned you‘re more likely to find that you and your people are resilient. If they are not, your situation will be tougher and might need managing more. For example, for a goal to be truly realisable, you need to feel competent enough to deliver it and, more or less, in control of it too. If it’s far too difficult, too big and too distant you naturally won‘t be motivated or resilient in your approach.

People also need to be able to invest emotionally in their goals – so involve them in their formulation. The goals that people are least likely to achieve are those handed to them from above – financial targets that need to be delivered against, for example. If these goals are impossible to deliver, these can be hugely demotivating and lead to pressure and worry.

Make sure staff and management take breaks and stay healthy – Loehr and Schwartz, who have conducted extensive research into athletes, argue that balancing stress and recovery is critical. On a practical level they recommend that you take a break or change focus every 90 to 120 minutes. And they suggest that the best short-term ways of ensuring recovery are to eat, drink, move, change activities and change location.

Health is also important. The healthier a person is, the more resilient to stress they will be. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, for example, claims that its Team Resilience Programme has reduced work-related mental illness by as much as 60%, has seen a 10%-16% cut in fatigue and frustration levels and a 21% increase in job satisfaction.

Lawyers deal with some of the longest hours in pressurised conditions. But many are rebelling and a higher-than-average proportion are looking to leave. If firms want to keep their talented staff, browbeating employees into meeting difficult goals is not the answer. It rarely succeeds and is never sustainable. Motivating staff will produce far better, more long-term results. Resilience and motivation are not ‘nice to have’; they are essential for organisations to succeed.

Jessica Pryce-Jones is joint founder and partner of the iOpener Institute for People & Performance