Stress Rolls Downhill: Surviving an Unhealthy Workplace, 0519 COBJ, Vol. 48, No. 5 Pg. 16

AuthorBy Sarah Myers
PositionVol. 48, 5 [Page 16]

48 Colo.Law. 16

Stress Rolls Downhill: Surviving an Unhealthy Workplace

Vol. 48, No. 5 [Page 16]

Colorado Lawyer

May, 2019


By Sarah Myers

"Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out."[1]

Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor who has spent almost four decades studying the physiological effects of stress on health in baboons and humans.[2] In addition to the conclusive evidence that long-term stress suppresses the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems, Sapolsky's research revealed that rank in society directly correlates to stress levels, and thus to overall physical and mental health. Simply stated, those who are of a lower rank have the highest incidence of stress-related illnesses. According to Dr. Sapolky's work, in environments where primates are not in daily physical danger from predators, they create psychological stressors, and they take out this stress on each other in accord with the hierarchy. Thus, stress rolls downhill.

The Whitehall Study, a longitudinal research project in England that commenced in 1967 and continues to the present, has traced a similar phenomenon in humans in their work environment.[3] The study found that those who have lower rank in the workplace are more likely to suffer from stress-related illness and disease than those who are higher in the organizational hierarchy. Why? Those in lower ranks in the workplace are generally in positions without any power or control over decisions; the perception is that the higher-ups, or bosses, have the power and control over the lives of the subordinates. The stress created from this type of situation makes subordinates physically, mentally, and emotionally ill.

Stress and the Law

What do these research projects have to do with lawyers? The practice of law is about helping others, yet is based on a hierarchical, adversarial process. The adversarial process is often used as an excuse for belligerent and even unprofessional behavior among many attorneys that leads to a type of institutional bullying. In fact, research suggests that "lawyers ... [are] more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behavior in the workplace including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition and destabilization from colleagues as well as...

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