I used to think I was invincible.  I handled stress better than most people I knew – or at least, that’s what I thought.  I worked out, I meditated and I forced balance into my life whenever possible.  I thought these stress-relieving techniques were helping, and they were – up to a point.  However, these self-help techniques often fell by the wayside when I became too busy with working as an attorney, trying to meet my billable hour quotas.  This was even more the case when I found myself struggling to take care of myself following the birth of my second daughter, while at the same time I was working as a full-time trial attorney. 

As a bit of background, I graduated from law school in 2006.  While awaiting bar results, I worked in a Human Resources department for a government agency.  This was my first “real” job, since all of my prior work experience consisted of internships that concluded at the end of a school semester or summer break.  

I was eager to learn.  However, during the months that I worked in HR, I learned lessons that I didn’t expect to learn.  Being the complete newbie that I was to the full-time, non-internship work force, I had an extremely idealistic perspective.  

At first glance, it seemed like the morale of the HR department had the potential to be pretty good.  However, as the months went by, I realized that the heavy workload prevented people from making the extra effort to do more than organize the occasional baby shower or birthday party.  There was often talk in the office about a previous leader who had made the environment a “fun” place to work.  People recalled this former manager’s genuine appreciation for the staff, and applauded her efforts to make everyone feel included.  Yet, upon her departure, the morale had steadily decreased and the remaining employees were left feeling unappreciated and unmotivated. 

It was at this HR job where I learned how an office job could take a physical toll on employees.  For example, I first learned about sciatic pain while working in HR – which was explained to me by one of my co-workers, who needed to sit in a modified work station due to her work-induced sciatica pain.  The fact that someone could get injured by sitting too much blew my mind.  

My surprise about physical workplace related ailments stemmed from the fact that up until that point, my days had typically consisted of varied class schedules that involved climbing up and down stairs to get to different classrooms and long walks between school and my parked car. 

My prior internship experience also contributed to my surprise at the low morale and physical ailments that I observed while working in HR.  For example, during my last semester of law school, I worked for the U.S. Navy JAG office in Japan, where my days were spent attending trials on and off base, interviewing and coordinating witnesses, and reviewing documents such as police reports and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  

It was also during my JAG internship where I first learned about the concept of team building as it applied to the workplace.  My internship was with the the trial services office (similar to a district attorney’s office), which regularly interacted with the equivalent of the public defenders’ office.  

It was truly eye opening experience when I joined the team of prosecutors and staff for their regularly scheduled Physical Training (PT) at the crack of dawn, before starting each workday at 7:30 a.m.  We swam laps at the pool, played flag football against the defenders’ office, ate long lunches together and the attorneys regularly interacted with each other outside of the office.  The military judge was often seen walking the halls and attending work lunches with both the prosecution and defense team members.  

The legal system on base operated like its own ecosystem – which, when coupled with the fact that most of the people who worked on base were servicemembers who were stationed away from their hometowns – formed a unique example of what a workplace could look like. 

So, having experienced how a team could work together, exercise together and genuinely enjoy each other’s company – it was a bit odd for me to enter the workforce back in the U.S. where people seemed to be so isolated from each other.  

Sure – the actual work should always be prioritized.  And in Japan, the work always did come first, as we were working on very high level criminal cases.  But – at least from my own personal experience – it was extremely useful to start the day by exercising with my co-workers.  Full disclosure, I am not a morning person, although I try to be, so these morning workouts showed me that engaging in physical activity made me more alert during early morning trials.  It was also equally helpful to go to lunch or dinner with my co-workers, where we would decompress from an otherwise stressful workday. 

Although military protocol prevents off-duty fraternization between officers and non-officers, the trial team’s early morning exercise routine created an even playing ground among all team members.  Characteristics like rank, age, and race didn’t matter on the field – all that mattered was whether someone could run or catch a ball during a flag football game.    

Japan also changed my perspective on health as it relates to outdoor activities and dietary choices.  

During my time there I lived off-base, which meant that I walked to and from my internship every weekday (minus a few exceptions where I splurged on a taxi).  In the mornings, I walked by large buildings that had rows and rows of bicycles out front, ridden by workers each day to their jobs.  I also saw those same workers stretching in one large group before starting their work day.  

On my walk home each night, I climbed a huge flight of stairs that led to my apartment building.  Now mind you – I’ve played sports and have been relatively active throughout my life.  But I’ve never been in better shape than when I lived in Japan.  During the weekends, I often went snowboarding at various ski resorts, followed by some major relaxation in outdoor hot springs.  When I decided to rock climb for the first time while in Japan, I noticed that I was being passed by locals who were my grandparents’ age. 

I visited Shinto shrines, where I learned about the belief of the interrelatedness between nature and humans.  I began to meditate while walking and riding the train.  I also noticed that my dietary choices were changing.  I drank strong green tea, with no sugar or milk, I ate at ramen shops and I noticed that my typical (huge) appetite had decreased. 

Simply put, by working on a military base and living in Japan – I began to understand the fundamental basics of team building and healthy living.  

Fast-forwarding to the present, after working in HR and spending a decade in business and employment litigation, I am trying to get back to the healthy habits I witnessed in Japan.  The question I now have is - how can the simple concepts of team building and health-drive initiatives be incorporated into the workplace, in a legally compliant way?  

I pose this question to myself, as I move to the next phase of my career, which consists of starting my own law firm and raising two daughters.  I pose this question to the HR professionals out there, who are tasked with the great responsibility of risk management and personnel decisions for their company.  And perhaps most importantly, I pose this question to the CEO’s and corporate leaders of our country – because without their support, team building and health-driven initiatives will never successfully take place. 

In conclusion, I feel that I am once again the blindly ambitious and optimistic person who first entered the workplace.  I envision a workplace for us all, where employees are actually excited to come to work and spend time with their co-workers and managers.  I believe that this excitement can lead to innovation and increased productivity, which in turn can lead to increased profits for U.S. companies.  I am excited for this next phase of my own personal career, and I am excited for the progress that I believe we can make towards improving the lives of U.S. employees. 

Nicole C. Baldwin, Esq. is a SDHR Roundtable Board Member and an owner/attorney for ncb law, apc.  Nicole can be reached by email at nicolecbaldwin@gmail.com or by phone at 619-512-6341.