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Mark Gorkin, LICSW, Stress Doc

published September 27, 2004

( 18 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)

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<<>>Mark Gorkin turned burnout into a business. He says he burned out while working on his doctoral thesis more than 20 years ago. He was depressed. The topic he had chosen for his thesis was too ambitious, and he became frustrated by the task. With a master's degree and a nascent social work practice, he abandoned the doctorate and started writing about stress for radio and television outlets in New Orleans.

He soon became known as the Stress Doc. One of the first articles he had published focused on the stressful legal world, and he has been holding seminars and workshops for stressed out legal staff ever since. Soon he had a monthly column in the magazine Legal Assistant Today.

Gorkin, 56, does not focus exclusively on the legal field, but it does comprise a good chunk of his clients. He is now a featured speaker at the Paralegal SuperConferences, organized by paralegal expert Chere Estrin (profiled recently by LawCrossing). He says attorneys are often rewarded for "acting like Rambo" in the courtroom and that they often bring that Rambo attitude back to the office and the home.

"A lawyer is often rewarded for being an aggressive, adversarial kind of person in the courtroom, but if you bring that attitude back into the office or into your family, you know you're creating a lot of stress for people," he told LawCrossing. "And that's what I see." He says that his clients often equate law firm power struggles to those between doctors and nurses - and typically the attorney is the one flexing his or her muscles in the office and contributing to already stressful situations.

"You know, people with power sometimes sort of treat other people casually or cavalierly and don't really know how to engage in real dialogue," he said. "It's not just the attorneys' fault. You are in an industry driven by both deadlines and things that pop up at the last minute, so that drives people crazy."

In his workshops, Gorkin blends humor with psychology and often sings rap songs to break the ice and describe tension in the workplace. He refers to his songs as "Shrink Rap." If he is working with a law firm on a team-building workshop, he breaks the teams up into groups that may not often talk with each other about workplace stress. For example, he puts a partner with a young attorney, a legal secretary, or paralegal and an IT person on a team. He then asks them to draw pictures.

"I might ask the group, 'What are the sources of stresses and conflict in your workplace operations?' And instead of just talking about it, I want you to come up with a group picture that pulls together your perspectives and comes up with a stress icon that tells a story, your own Dilbert cartoon," he said. "It really gives people an opportunity to talk about real issues and have fun and exaggerate. It breaks the ice and makes these frustrating, scary kinds of things less intimidating."

By drawing, he says, people realize they're not alone.

"Suddenly issues that would turn on some tension get everyone working as a team having fun drawing, making crazy images. It's a real bonding kind of experience because they're really channeling this energy that we all have about modern-day life and the pressures."

Gorkin, who now lives and works in Washington, DC, which is "crawling with lawyers," recently published his first book, Practicing Safe Stress, which deals with "healing and laughing in the face of stress, burnout, and depression." He often dresses like a Blues Brother, with a hat and sunglasses, during his "Shrink Rap" sessions.

The Stress Doc advises his clients that "N&N" is as important as R&R to managing stress. N&N stands for No and Negotiate. He says too often people say yes when asked to do unreasonable tasks at work, and then they disappoint their boss when the work is not completed.

"A firm no a day keeps the ulcers away - and the hostilities too," he says.

At the paralegal conferences, Gorkin focuses on topics like the art and science of personal motivation and plans to include anger management and dealing with difficult people.

Often attorneys do not want to attend his team-building seminars, so he usually works with paralegals, office managers, and assistants. He says it's crucial for law firms to employ an HR person or another manager whom people respect and feel they can get help from if they are dealing with a difficult boss.

"We all have issues with authority figures. If you're born from a parent, you have issues with authority figures. If I still am somewhat intimidated and don't feel comfortable speaking up, boy, it's going to be hard to work in a law firm," he says.

People need to learn to set boundaries and not allow power-hungry people in the office to get to them. He urges people to "harden" themselves a bit when dealing with difficult people because some "Rambo types" thrive on intimidating others. If you can't set up healthy boundaries and the abuse continues, Gorkin says it might be time to look for another job.

"You've got to really ask, 'Is this the firm I really want to be in? Is it worth getting sick over?' And of course the answer is no," he says.

He often writes about his own burnout and recovery and about how he was "too rigidly idealistic" and refused to change his behavior and blamed people around him for his frustrations.

The Stress Doc prescribes four R's for recovery: Running (or another form or exercise); Reading (lighthearted, humorous books or cartoons); Retreating (taking some time out to analyze how you got into a bad situation); and the fourth R is wRiting (a journal can be therapeutic).

The most important step to battling stress, he believes, is maintaining a sense of humor.

"For example, I am pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music," he says. I sing them at conferences and people love it because it's funny. I put on a Blues Brothers hat and sunglasses and [hold] a tambourine, but the lyrics are really quite poignant. I mean, they're real. People can relate to them. They say, 'He's talking about me.' But because they can laugh, it's not as scary."