Sorry but being a ‘standout’ doesn’t come with a guarantee

by Bernadette Healy

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How to thrive and make a difference?  It may be surprising to find that there is an answer to this question. It is to be yourself.  As you are likely to know already, this is not easy, particularly at work because work contexts, in general, are about persuading those within them to mould themselves according to an organizationally-defined template.  The ongoing efforts to do so which necessarily includes continual comparison between employees (and even with those outside the organization) –can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure and isolation – and is known to impacts on both personal and organizational wellbeing.

At the recent Wellness for Law forum at ANU  (for a sample of the program offerings, please see:  http://wellnessforlaw.com/2015/01/2015-forum-presentations/)  a lawyer on a panel considering the issue of workload used the expression “the magnetic force to conform.”  This wonderful and accurate description helps to explain why  many people are prepared to routinely work hours that must inevitably lead to burnout -for the majority – and not uncommonly, an exit from study or an organization (accompanied all too often by a belief that they were a failure).   As many of you will know, the practice of using up and then replacing young bright legal hopefuls is cynically built into some organization’s practices.

In another presentation, we heard about a young female lawyer who successfully negotiated work / life balance issues for herself at the hiring stage and continued to maintain her negotiated practices while also gaining management recognition and promotion.   This would no doubt have taken courage both when initiated and also on an ongoing basis as she faced questioning and possible pressure to conform (as it was not a generally accepted practice within the firm). The oversupply of lawyers makes this kind of behaviour seem all the braver and it is easy to understand that many would choose instead to refrain from making any demands of the organization – at least at entry level – for fear that it upset their desperate bid to get the proverbial foot in the door.  But perhaps for the young lawyer above the balance issue was the ‘must have’ factor for any role and known to her, to be a critical ingredient for success.  (perhaps you are saying to yourself as you read this ‘she must have been a real ‘standout’ .  But aren’t most of you ‘standouts’- at least in terms of the prevailing societal definition of success?  Being someone who has generally succeeded up to the point of entry to your chosen profession or a few years in or even in the middle of your career, won’t necessarily lead to personal satisfaction or wellbeing at work.  For those experiences you can’t avoid paying attention to yourself and who you are, both in terms of your relationship with yourself and with others)

What is your critical ingredient?  What is your ‘must have’ in terms of the thing that is a pre-requisite in order for you to be able to thrive in the work context?  Have you given thought to what contributes to your thriving compared to what is a ‘its nice when it happens ’ kind of issue?    Where does workload and work hours fit in the above for you?  Where does respect and a climate free of bullying fit for you?  What are you prepared to ignore, tolerate, or even turn a blind eye to for the sake of your professional goals?  Are you prepared to risk anything for the sake of your values?  Is your desire to conform and be accepted the number one thing that drives you?

These issues need to be faced by all of us.  I have found in my profession listening to countless dilemmas that the object of your choice will generally be less significant in terms of personal wellbeing than is the action of you consciously choosing and importantly being prepared to take responsibility for that choice.

Thankfully there is increasing recognition and some signs of action[1] around the reality that organizational policies and practices impact the individual wellbeing of its members.  However bureaucracies are inherently slow-moving and unwieldy beasts – if there is something that really matters to you, that you know is impacting your professional and personal wellbeing – don’t hang around too long waiting for change – (either in the organization or you!) make a decision and act.

[1] (for example as suggested by law firms and associations who have become signatories to the TJMF psychological wellbeing best practice guidelines for the legal professions – see http://www.tjmf.org.au/raise-the-standard/the-guidelines-at-a-glance/