Luke Wiley, Undergraduate student, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; David Ross, PhD, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Piotr Broda, MS, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

In the present study, we sought to understand in more detail why some individuals are reluctant to engage in adequate recovery, using a sample of attorneys, an occupational group that commonly experiences high stress. Using mixed-methods approach, we examined how both stressors and attitudes toward stress affect recovery efforts.

It is well-documented that workplace stress is commonplace in modern day work environments and pervasive in its effects on the work and non-work domains (e.g., American Psychological Association, 2019; Barnett et al., 2012; Nixon et al., 2011). Resources, such as social support and appropriate recovery, can help to offset the impacts of workplace stressors (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017). Many individuals, however, do not have sufficient resources or sufficient opportunities to acquire resources in order to adequately respond to stressors. Barriers to resource replenishment need to be better understood, particularly among high-stress occupations.

Attorneys were invited to complete the survey study through several local and regional organizations for legal professionals. The sample was comprised of 128 attorneys, practicing various forms of law (e.g., litigation, corporate, family). The average age of participants was 49.43 (SD = 14.54). Individuals had been practicing law for 21.79 years on average (SD = 15.50) and had been with their current employer an average of 13.03 years (SD = 11.98). The sample was predominantly white (92%) and fairly evenly split amongst men (53%) and women (47%). The online survey included information about basic demographics, open-ended questions about work and stress, and self-report scales assessing constructs related to stress, work experiences, health, and well-being. The self-reported measures that are relevant for the present study included common work stressors (Spector & Jex, 1998), stress-badge perceptions (Black & Britt, 2018), and recovery experiences (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). The open-ended questions asked more specifically about unique stressors experienced as an attorney, the effects of stress on their personal and work experiences, ways in which they manage their stress, and the importance of stress management.

We examined how four dimensions of stress badge perceptions (viewing stress as achievement, relaxation remorse, stress-related social comparisons, and stress-related impression management) and general stressors (quantitative work overload, work-family conflict, and interpersonal conflict) related to recovery experiences (detachment, relaxation, control, and mastery). Of the stressors assessed, quantitative workload correlated with less detachment (r = -.39) and less relaxation (r = -.24). Work-family conflict correlated negatively with all four recovery experiences (r range = -.23 to -.35). Viewing stress as achievement generally did not correlate with recovery experiences, suggesting that viewing stress as a part of being successful was not necessarily interfering with recovery efforts. Stress-related social comparisons demonstrated moderate correlations (r range = -.26 to .37) with three of the four recovery experiences. Relaxation remorse correlated more strongly with recovery experiences (r range = .29 to .56), where the strongest relationship was with psychological detachment. In sum, the experience of stressors correlate with recovery experiences, as would be expected. Regarding attitudes toward stress and recovery, stress-related comparisons and relaxation remorse were also associated with fewer recovery experiences, with some correlations being stronger than correlations with the actual stressors. Thematic coding of open-ended questions is ongoing. Initial themes indicate that many attorneys experience workplace stress, particularly related to an extremely high workload, unreasonable expectations, and challenges balancing work and non-work life. Many attorneys can observe the effects of stressors on their health and well-being but find it difficult to find time for stress management activities. Complete coding and presentation of the key themes represented in the responses will be available prior to the November conference.

These results indicate that the sheer amount of stress experienced by attorneys and attitudes around stress may prohibit successful recovery and lead to general expectations that being “stressed” is just part of the job. Any stress management efforts targeting this population may have to focus on unique strategies, such as using micro-breaks to provide recovery through short break activities during the day. Short breaks may be helpful for this population because they have extremely full schedules that may not allow for longer duration breaks. Even more, interventions aimed at changes to the organizational and occupational cultures may be necessary to allow for more lasting changes. Targeting attitudes and norms around stress and the importance of recovery first may allow individual stress-management techniques to be utilized to a greater degree.

As with many other occupational groups, stressors can impact the well-being of attorneys. Perhaps more prevalent among this specific occupation is the expectation that being stressed and neglecting recovery are to some degree normative. Future research and practice efforts must consider how to implement successful stress-management interventions in such contexts in order to promote healthy views of stress among high-achieving and high-stress occupations.

Tags: Applied research, COVID-19, Empirical study, Job Attitudes; Turnover; and Retention, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Services, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery