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Lawyers and the ripple effect of poor work environments

It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver

- Mahatma Ghandi

A recent study by Dr Rebecca Michalak of PsychSafe, has shown that the legal profession has the lowest levels of health and well being of white collar workers, and that they are also the highest users of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.  In fact substance abuse is approximately double that of other white collar workers.  You can read a summary of her report here.

It is no secret that the very nature of the legal profession is inherently stressful — long working hours, the tyranny of time sheets and budgets, demanding clients, competition, and a pessimistic view of the world as a result of always having to look for the worst case scenario and plan for it, all contribute to stress, which over a long period of time cam lead to many health problems.  These health problems include many physical illnesses and also mental illnesses.

Sadly, substance abuse can be a by-product of mental health issues as those suffering from it attempt to self medicate, rather than admit to it.

Dr Michalak said that rather than teaching resilience, to cope with stress,  law firms needed to take proactive, preventative measures around the systemic failings and work environments to prevent it happening at all.

I agree with Dr Michalak - at present the legal profession has almost double the rate of mental health diagnoses as the general population.  This is a systemic issue not a personal one.

Disturbingly, her report also found that:

Lawyers were also more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behaviour in the workplace, including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition, and destabilisation from colleagues, as well as sexual harassment

The ripple effect of poor work practices and environments is large, and getting bigger.


World Kindness Day in the workplace

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

Friday 13 November 2015 is World Kindness Day.  This day is part of a World Kindness Movement (WKM) that started at a conference in Japan almost 20 years ago.

The mission of the WKM is "to inspire individuals towards greater kindness and to connect nations to create a kinder world".

This is the WKM on a macro level - changing the world.  We can, however, all make a difference by practising kindness every day and on this day, consciously practising kindess in the workplace.  Imagine if we could change the world by changing one workplace at a time.

Kindness does not have to be a grand gesture.  Nor does is have to cost money.  Kindness can be a small gesture, genuinely made.  Some of the simplest acts of kindness in the workplace are:

  • holding a door open
  • offering to make someone a cup of tea
  • answering someone's phone and taking a message
  • offering to get extra materials from the stationery room
  • keeping the lift doors open when you see someone rushing to catch the lift
  • remembering colleague's birthdays and acknowledging them
  • taking an interest in peoples' interests
  • showing genuine empathy to someone who is upset

Empathy is one of the best character traits to have - it makes the practice of kindness easy.  And authentic.  Practising kindness because you 'have to' is emotionally exhausting.  Authenticity is essential.

The really good news about kindness, however is twofold.  First,  is that is is contagious.  We take our cues from other people.   When we witness or experience someone showing us kindness, we experience something called moral elevation - an emotion we experience after witnessing an act of kindness, compassion, understanding or forgiveness.  We are more likely to be kind and helpful ourselves in that state.  If leaders show kindness, their employees are also more likely to do so.

Secondly, practising kindness gives another person the opportunity to express gratitude,  a very underrated virtue.  In turn, having someone say 'thank you' gives us a good feeling and also increases the well being of the person expressing it.

When you think about it, kindness creates a giant warm circle of happiness.  What's not to like?



Psychopaths in the workplace

If you know someone who cares more about power and material things than people, watch them very closely. You may be dealing with a psychopath.

- Michelle Parsons


Workplace psychopaths can appear normal.  They are also mostly charming, on the surface at least, because charm is one of the many tricks they use to manipulate others, and they  lack empathy, meaning that they cannot understand the feelings of others, or put themselves in the shoes of others.  They are almost always narcissists as well – making every situation all about them, particularly if something has gone wrong – it becomes about what they did right and everyone else did wrong.  These people are walking amongst us!

By the time you recognise an office psychopath it may be too late, as the damage they have done to the workplace will be enormous.

Professor Robert Hare, a criminal psychologist, developed a diagnostic test to determine whether someone is a psychopath or not (called the PCL-R).  For more information see the article here.  

This is a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 if it doesn’t apply, 1 if it somewhat applies and 2 if it fully applies.

Some of these (and I am not including those relating to criminal psychopathic behaviour here) include:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Being cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotional Shallowness (genuine emotion is very short-lived, probably fake  and egocentric, i.e. it becomes about them)
  • Callousness; lack of empathy
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Tendency  to be bored easily
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of behavioural control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility


A score of 30 or more  out of a possible 40 would qualify someone as psychopathic, according to Hare.

Recognise anyone with whom you work?  Or live with? The latter is potentially scary.

Psychopaths can be fun to work with, for a while – a tendency to be bored can be seen as someone who is always coming up with good and interesting ideas.  Being charming means that they are good at giving compliments (even if they are manipulating you by doing so).  A grandiose sense of self worth will at first appear to be nothing more than confidence.  Impulsivity can extrovert as having a keen sense of fun.

But be warned – a psychopath is a dangerous work colleague or employee.  They  will never accept responsibility for a failed project; any goals they fail to achieve (no matter how unrealistic)  will be the fault of someone else; they will lie to get out of any difficulty; they will turn any success into being about them.  If a psychopath is in a position of power and the only one doing the talking to management senior to him or her, you can be sure nothing good is being said about any work colleagues or junior employees.  Because they are so charming and often, as I call them ‘kiss up and kick down’ people’, senior management is unlikely to believe someone who raises a concern about their behaviour.

Psychopaths are also unlikely to bully anyone overtly – bullying will take the form of undermining, isolation, exclusion, gossip, and other subtle means.

A recent article listed the top 10 careers for the highest percentages of psychopaths – there are few surprises here (although I was surprised by the addition of clergy on the list).   

Of course the good news is that only 4% of CEOs are diagnosable as psychopaths – 4 times that of the general population.  But it is important to focus on the positive – that 96% of CEOs are not. Of course where does that leave lawyers who become CEOs?  Is that a double whammy?

As an investigator, I am always on the lookout for psychopathic traits that could impact evidence - particularly the tendency to be charming, as they will no doubt try to charm me to influence the outcome.  I am not easily fooled.



Belle Gibson - the art of attention seeking

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another

- Shakespeare

Belle Gibson, the now disgraced ‘social media entrepreneur’ has become the poster girl for deceit on a large scale in Australia. 

Last night on 60 Minutes, Tara Brown interviewed her, to try and get answers out of Ms Gibson as to how, and why, she managed to deceive so many people for so long, about her cancer diagnosis and recovery, through diet and in particular whole foods.  Ms Gibson made millions out of  a cookbook and an App developed from her cookbook.  Worse, she convinced many people to ignore the advice of oncologists and traditional medical intervention on the basis of her miraculous recovery.  You can see the interview here.  It is clear from the whole fiasco that Ms Gibson is a chronic liar and shameless attention seeker. I still can't believe how few people called Belle Gibson's version of events into question - the whole sorry saga could have easily been prevented.  Sadly, like every other narcissist, Ms Gibson blames everyone but herself for the situation in which she now finds herself.

This is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence and also occurs in employment relationships.

On a smaller scale, I have twice now investigated employees who have been suspected of faking cancer for both sympathy, and to avoid performance management.  I still say ‘suspected’ because in both cases, the employee resigned before formal performance management commenced, although many years later they are both still very much alive and healthy.

In investigating this type of issue it is important to tread lightly.  While suspicions are aroused for any number of reasons, the truth is that the employee may be terribly ill, in one way or another.   However in both of these cases the following issues arose:

  • Performance was not at the expected level for the role and this continued for a significant period of time
  • The employee was under 30 years of age
  • The employee had regular ‘dramatic’ events in life, not related to health, requiring their absence from work, and garnering a great deal of sympathy
  • The employee was considered to be very ‘brave’ in coming to work when so ill, and gained sympathy and attention from colleagues, making management of the employee difficult.  In one case, other employees had organised fund raising activities for the ‘sick’ employee, as well as home cooked meals
  • The investigation started because the ill health suddenly became dramatically worse when performance issues were raised – in one case, cancer which had been in remission for a number of years, suddenly returned as a secondary cancer
  • The employee refused to allow me to obtain a report from their treating oncologist as the effect of performance management on their treatment and health.  Neither would tell me the name of the treating oncologist, notwithstanding that every other facet of their illness had been freely and embarrassingly shared with other in the workplace
  • Lengthy research had to be done in relation to common treatment regimes for the particular cancers which bore little resemblance to the treatment the employees said they had, or were, undergoing
  • The employee had gone to great lengths to look sick during work hours (including shaved heads and scarves)  yet social media accounts (which were not private) showed them to be enjoying busy social lives which also included heavy drinking and smoking – when challenged as to absence from work on a Monday the reason given was usually treatment rather than a hangover
  • An examination of email and work provided mobile phone records proved the employees had lied about their whereabouts at times of medical appointments or other events requiring their absence from work, including occasions when compassionate leave had been granted
  • The employee resigned when asked to respond to issues raised with them


I suspect this was a pattern of behaviour -  leaving their employment when the deceit was discovered and probably starting the deceit again.  It should be noted, however, that at no stage was an allegation put to the employee about having 'faked' being sick. The allegations were about lying about other events related to their employment, but in also asking for details of their treating oncologist, each will have known that suspicions had been raised.

Following their departure from the organisations, further investigations revealed other instances of deceit involving credit, taxi vouchers and various other work related benefits.

The level of hurt and anger in those organisations when the level of the deception was uncovered cannot be described.  Staff who had been through treatment for cancer or who had lost a loved one to cancer were among those who had provided support.

Sadly, I believe in one of these cases the employee was psychiatrically ill, but in the other the employee was no more than a narcissistic attention seeker, who was a chronic liar!  I don’t know if either sought help, but the most important lesson from this for me was to trust my instincts.  I thought something was not quite right from a short time after their employment commenced.

For employers, as with all investigations, policies which allow workplace investigators to review email correspondence and phone records for work provided mobile phones are vital to uncovering the truth.  Unlike most workplace investigations which involve allegations made by one person against another,  this type of investigation requires a slow and steady approach, particularly as the employee may be seriously ill.



Disappointment does not have to mean discouragement

Don't let today's disappointment cast a shadow over tomorrow's dream

- unknown


Everyone faces disappointments in their careers.  It is a rare and lucky person who doesn’t.  It could be not getting a job you really want, or a promotion, or pay rise.  Other than complaining endlessly to the immense irritation of others, how do you, or should you,  deal with disappointments?

 A friend delated the story of a work colleague who did not get promoted when she thought she should have been - she was, to say the least, very disappointed. And she let everyone know.  For months.  It started just to annoy everyone who, while sympathetic, were only sympathetic to a point.

While it is certainly important to acknowledge your disappointments and not just ignore them, you can make a choice.   The answer lies in learning constructive ways to acknowledge disappointments and move on. Learning to deal with your disappointments constructively can make you a stronger person in the end and the envy of others, who will see you as a positive role model.

One of the first things you will need to do in learning to deal with disappointment  is to recognize your old coping mechanisms,  and create new ones.  Everyone has them – is it overeating, having too much to drink, weeping uncontrollably, getting angry at the world, withdrawing from friends and family?  If you have a tendency to equate every disappointment as a failure, this will trigger your stress response and make you respond emotionally.  Failure is an event, not you.  Reframe your thinking to think of this temporary disappointment as a blip, not a failure on your part.

And just as you can reframe your thinking about failure you can reframe your thinking about success.  What does success look like to YOU, not what newspapers or industry magazines or Who magazine subliminally tell you what success is.  Reframe your thoughts from what failure is to what success looks like – TO YOU.

Failure is a subjective term. So is success.  Some of the most outwardly successful people are miserable.  If you have very rigid ideas of what it means to succeed, you will often feel disappointed, particularly if you base your idea of success on what is happening to other people.  

Acceptance is important  – practising acceptance for things you can’t control.  Sometimes you have to say 'it is what it is'– not what it could be or even should be.

You can honestly express the emotions that you are experiencing. This is about how you feel about the situation, not about other people. So don’t disparage other people to make yourself feel better.  Articulate your feelings without attacking or putting others down.  In the example above, dismissing the ability of someone who DID get promoted is likely to portray you as bitter and immature and stop you focussing on what you can do to improve the situation.

You can also accept that this is not personal. It may not be about you and you are not the only person who ever experiences disappointment in their careers.

What are the positives or opportunities? Find opportunity in adversity- there will always be one. In the example above, the person who missed out could get some feedback about what she has to do to make it happen, and have somone actively manage her career and promotion.

Put things into perspective – even the tiniest of disappointments can seem huge at the time.  Once you have felt or expressed the disappointment take a moment to step back and look at the larger picture – how much is this going to have an effect on you in the future?

For example, follow the 10/10/10/10 rule:

  • Will this matter in 10 minutes – probably
  • Will this matter in 10 days – possibly
  • Will this matter in 10 months – probably not
  • Will this matter in 10 years – highly unlikely


What can you learn? – did you have unrealistic expectations?  Is there something you can do differently or better next time?  All disappointments invariably somehting you can learn from them.

And remember - hard work, including on yourself, is never a waste of time.


Managing your stress response - think like a zebra

The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another

 - William Jones

Human beings have come to accept that stress is a part of everyday life.  Over time prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems.  So if we can't reduce the amount of stress in our lives we had better learn to manage our response to stress.  And this is where thinking like a zebra comes into play.

Zebras spend most of their time wandering around, eating, drinking at waterholes, mating and sleeping. Most of their lives are spent being pretty relaxed.

But every now and then, for about 1-2 minutes they experience sheer terror.  A lion appears and picks out a potential meal from the herd and the chase is on.  The response of the zebras is an automatic one.  Their brains sense danger. They run.  As fast as they can.  Their hearts are racing and limbs pounding –their bodies are automatically responding to the threat.  They are either eaten, or they survive.

But if they survive, they go back to what they were doing before.  The immediate danger is over, and their bodies, and brains return to their normal relaxed state. 

Zebras would be astounded to know that human beings experience the stress response as frequently as we do.

There is an excellent short documentary explaining the stress response by Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University.  He has spent over three decades studying the stress response in humans and animals, and he has also written a book called 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers'.  Interestingly baboons have very high levels of stress in the animal kingdom, having nine hours a day to torment each other after eating and sleeping.  The similarities to modern workplaces should not be dismissed.

So what is the stress response?

In humans, our immediate stress response is similar to that of the animal world, and our brains and bodies are hard wired to react to threats and perceived threats. I use the word ‘perceived’ because over time our learned responses to certain stressful situations become embedded in our neural pathways and part and parcel of everyday life.   They are memories that become activated by that particular stressful situation. We have taught our brains to find stress in the unlikeliest of places, and react accordingly. Over and over again.  For some people it is like Groundhog Day.

When we are facing stress, our bodies respond automatically by activating the nervous system and releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones cause physical changes which help us react quickly -  the ‘flight or fight’ (and sometimes 'freeze' response. 

Our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolic rate and muscle tension all increase.  Glucose that has been stored in the liver is released, and the immune system is suppressed.   This is the body’s way of protecting us, by stopping things it doesn’t need to do right in that moment, and increasing activity that will help - help us deal with something that could kill us, not a performance review for example.

For example if a car cuts in front of us in the traffic, we put the foot on the brake without even consciously thinking about it.  We should  then resume normal transmission and go back to our relaxed state

But then sometimes we yell and scream and shake our fists and flip the bird when there is no need to… 


There are some simple tricks to use to manage your own stress response.

Recognise the triggers

First of all, recognise what the triggers are for you – is it public speaking, multiple deadlines, over commitment, negative responses, negative feedback, traffic, public transport, fear of failure?  Imagine if it is all of these things and they happen on the same day?  Find out what you respond to and and decide to teach your brain to respond differently. 

Try and identify THREE things that cause you to become stressed and respond inappropriately.

Mary, for example, felt her stress response activated when her supervisor Martin became inappropriately angry when something at work went wrong.  She would immediately become angry herself, assuming he was finding fault with her.  Her heart rate would go up, she would feel a bit light headed.  The two of them would argue, he would talk over the top of her, she became defensive and more angry until they were shouting.  Mary had to learn to completely change the way she thought  about and responded to this situation,  take a deep breath when blamed, and respond calmly, and quietly.  In doing so, she not only managed her stress response, she helped Martin manage his as well.

Practice acceptance for things you can’t control

When we are stressed, little things often set us off because we already have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems.  There are many stressful things that happen in the day over which  we have no control – for example,  planes being late, traffic hold ups, milk being spilled (literally).  There is no point reacting to those things we can’t change.  We need to practice saying ‘it is what it is’, deal with it and move on.   So for example you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a traffic accident and you are being held up.  can you change the fact that the lanes are blocked ahead?  No.  Is having a racing heart and sweaty palms an appropriate response?  No.  Call ahead, explain the situation, and sit back and breathe deeply.  It may be the best way to utilise that 10 minutes rather than shouting and banging your fists on the dashboard.

One important thing about things you can't control -  you can’t control other people’s reactions but you can control your own.


I am not talking about  cardio exercise here.  If your heart rate is up just move to  match what is happening in your body.  Remember that adrenaline is running through your body – so for example  just before a presentation, an exam or any event you know is causing you stress and your heart rate to increase  – move around, walk up the stairs.   This will send the message to your brain that you are heeding its warning, and in turn your brain will stop or at least reduce the stress response.

Self talk

Listen to how you talk to yourself.  Are you telling yourself you’re a failure, this always happens, anticipating the worst  etc?

Ask  yourself what is the worst that can happen?   If you can handle that unlikely event then anything less than that is manageable.  Once you've asked yourself about the worst, ask the question you really need to ask yourself - what is the BEST thing that could happen?  I

f you are telling yourself ‘I am such a failure',  reframe your thoughts.  Turn the negative thoughts around into something less negative even if it can’t be positive.

For example, ‘this is going to be terrible’ becomes not ‘this is going to be great’ but ‘this is going to be tough, but I know I can get through it’.

Remember the quote above - the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.


Next time you are feeling stressed and anxious try smiling.  Take a deep breath and smile.  Just smiling again sends a message to your brain that you are not freaking out, and the brain will respond accordingly.

Recognise fear of failure - and get over it

For our ancestors,  failure could mean the difference between life and death, so failure was a threat. Our brains function the same way today.  Failure and success are drummed into us from the time we start school, sometimes earlier.  We go from a fairly carefree life of writing and drawing how we want and meandering around to having to draw between the lines and walk in lines.  We grow up looking first for stamps and stickers, then for other signs of our success, and anyone else's success diminishes our own.

I recently read  'Wired for Life' by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse and it is an eye opening book.  In it the authors look at many different fears we have and have this to say about fear of failure:

The shape of the threats that face you in the modern world are very different. Failing at a job can be processed as a threat to status. ..and the threat response does not wait to see if this materialises, the threat response is activated as soon as your mind starts visualising them

If you live with fear of failure, your brain is constantly on the lookout for ways in which that might happen and responds accordingly.  So fear of failure, in whatever form, activates the stress response.  Remind yourself of your many successes, take the risk you need to take, and celebrate a job well done when it is over - even if it is just facing something you were afraid of.

A wise person once told me that ‘failure is an event not a person’


There are whole books written on mindfulness so I won’t go into it in any detail  here but it works.  Really. It works. It is about teaching our brains to focus on the here and now, to be in the present.   It allows us to focus on what our senses are telling us, and to calm our minds.


Pausing is, for me, mini mindfulness. and is  very effective for dealing with day to day stress.  I first learned about the concept of 'The Pause' at a seminar run by The Mind Gardeners and if you ever get a chance to go to one of their workshops I can highly recommend it.  The Pause involves pausing, taking a breath before moving from one task to another.  It allows you to bring your attention to the next task and to leave any stress from your previous task behind.

So for example moving from studying one task  to another, moving from one client to another, hang up the phone or put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and then move on to the next thing.

If you do this 10 times during the course of the day it will take approximately 1 minute, which is a worthwhile investment in order to manage your stress response.


You may have noticed a common theme in all of these tips - and that is breathing.

Of all the things that occur automatically when the stress response is activated( increased heart beat, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing) there is only one that we can control -  our breathing

By slowing down our breathing, we can change the messages the body is sending to the brain and thereby change the way we respond.

So if you slow your breathing down, by deliberately taking long slow deep (i.e. through the diaphragm) breaths, your heart rate will slow down and your brain gets the message that the threat is decreasing.

Inhale.  Exhale. Repeat.

The most important aspect of managing our stress response is that in teaching yourselves a new way to respond you will be teaching others, unconsciously, by modelling, to manage their stress response as well.


Roses in the Ocean - suicide prevention

"There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be"

John Lennon

I went to a dinner on Tuesday night with the Little Black Dress Group (for information see LBDG).   I almost cancelled during the day as I had had a dull headache most of the day and had an early start the next morning. But I reminded myself how much I enjoyed these dinners, and the wonderful women I meet, put on a black dress and heels and off I went.

And I am so glad I did.  Fate has a way of working in your favour.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: 'Once you've made a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen".  I met the most extraordinary and inspirational woman, who reminded me of one of the things I am passionate about - mental health and resilience, particlarly in the legal profession, where the incidence of mental health issues is almost double that of the general population.

Bronwen Edwards has founded Roses in the Ocean, a non profit organisation whose vision is, quite simpy, to prevent suicide.  You can read more about Bronwen's story and the work of this foundation on their website.  To do this they want to raise awareness, to have conversations , to utilise the wisdom of those affected by suicide, encourage real prevention behaviours, and to raise funds for suicide prevention initiatives.

These dinners have a written agenda - we went off agenda that night as we all listened to Bronwen, and her passion for raising awareness of and preventing suicide.  And the universe will work in Bronwen's favour with so many people now willing to help and put her in touch with others who can help as well.

In 2011 (the latest published statistics I could find)  there were 2273 suicides in Australia, 76% of whom were male.  That was almost 7 EVERY day of that year.  Bronwen tells me that the number is now 7 or more a day.  I think you'll agree that is far too many people taking their own lives. 

I teach resilience and mental health awareness to law students about to embark on their legal careers, through the College of Law.  When I talk about suicide (too briefly I now think), I tell them that one of  the best ways to prevent suicide is to open up a conversation with the person you think might be struggling, and just simply ask 'have you thought about taking your own life?'.  In every class most students looks horrified and I ask 'are you worried about being wrong?'.  The answer is always yes.

To this I respond 'I would rather be wrong, and risk embarrassment, than not ask the question at all'.  I have asked that question four times in my career - so far two people have responded that yes they have thought about it.  They did not take their own lives - I don't know if they had the resources or an actual plan to do it, but having someone to open up to about it helped.  They got help and we started a conversation about what led them to that point. I am not a professional counsellor, nor is it my job to be a de facto psychiatrist or psychologist - but I know where to go to get information to help people, and we can all take responsibility for that.  The first step is to listen, non judgementally, and give them the information they need on where to go to get help. 

A lot of people will pronounce that suicide is a selfish act - far from it.  Those who take their own lives have usually got to a point where they think their families, friends and the world in general, would be better off without them, and that  they're doing everyone a favour.  We can all take a chance for turning that perception around.

Every person you meet might be struggling and fighting an internal battle.

Here are some resources that might help someone close to you, as well as Roses in the Ocean:

Lifeline - 13 11 14 - crisis support
Black Dog Institute - for information, and for organisations, assistance with material for training
Beyond Blue - for information, and for organisations, assistance with material for training
Centre for Clinical Intervention - for information, and free downloadable fact sheets, and self directed work
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467 - crisis support
Reachout - online support and education