How to spot and prevent burnout in the legal profession

Even if you love your job and enjoy your work, it’s common sometimes to feel tired, stressed, and burned out.

It’s not uncommon for people in many jobs, especially busy professionals, to sometimes throw around the term “burnout”. Maybe a big case is nearing completion, or a major deadline is looming. The truth is, though, that while a busy schedule can be stressful, it’s in a different league to psychologists’ definition of burnout.

The phrase “burnout” was coined by psychologists in the late 1970s. As a metaphor for the draining of physical and emotional energy, it refers to the smothering of a fire: what was once alight and burning cannot continue because there are insufficient resources to keep that energy replenished.

Berkeley professor Christine Maslach says, “burnout means the complete exhaustion of an employee’s capacity to maintain an intense involvement that has a meaningful impact at work.” It is therefore much more serious than exhaustion, which can be overcome with rest, because  a deep disillusionment with one’s work is at its core.

It’s, therefore, important to be able to spot the signs of burnout early, and to take steps to prevent it from taking over.

Burnout in the legal profession

Initially associated with people working in the healthcare professions, and others who toil in difficult, emotionally-draining conditions, burning out is increasingly identified in other professions such as the law.

Legal professionals, like healthcare professionals, often face a constant barrage of competing work demands, serious consequences if mistakes are made, and — sometimes — emotionally draining casework.

To make matters worse, technology might be exacerbating burnout. Email, smartphones, and ever-present internet connections mean that we’re increasingly unable to unplug and recharge. Long gone are the days when work concerns could be neatly forgotten at 6 p.m. to reappear the next morning.

The consequences are troubling. A study by Johns Hopkins University has found that legal professionals suffer from depression at a rate of 3.6 times those in other professions. Another study by Yale University found that 70 percent of people working in the law have struggled with mental health issues. The negative health consequences of long-term stress have, repeatedly, been shown to be serious.

How to spot burnout

To prevent burnout, you first need to be able to identify it. Many people have trouble spotting burnout in themselves, because its symptoms are not unique and can be similar to general tiredness and temporary stress. There are some clues to look out for, though.

Physical clues like fatigue (that is a feeling of exhaustion not solved by sleep or rest), a loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, frequent headaches, and digestive issues. You might also feel an inability to concentrate on tasks that require intense focus.

Psychological clues are a little harder to identify in oneself but include anger, irritability, an excessive sense of melancholy or hopelessness, and a general loss of enjoyment in going to work.

There’s a short questionnaire on the MindTools website that can help you to decide whether any of these common symptoms are present in your case.

Self-diagnosis is rarely simple, however. That’s why it’s important to look out for your colleagues (especially those who report to you) and to intervene early. It makes little sense for managers to have employees that are unmotivated, highly stressed, and approaching burnout. So, what should you look out for?

  • Attitude changes — Look out for colleagues who are unusually quiet, somber, sullen, disagreeable or even moody.
  • Stress reactions — Employees are tense, irritable, and perhaps even short-tempered and aggressive in the office. In particular, look out for overreactions to minor setbacks.
  • Tardiness or absences — Late arrivals, early departures, and unusual patterns of sick days can be a sign that someone’s motivation is rapidly depleting.
  • An increase in mistakes — Burned out colleagues are likely to rush work, to lose concentration, and to check work less thoroughly than they ought to.

How to prevent burnout

Benjamin Franklin once said: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The best way to address burnout is, therefore, to begin taking preventative action as soon as you identify any of the symptoms (and ideally, before!)

  • Take regular short breaks during the workday — Peak performance is rarely achieved by trying to work harder and harder, never leaving your desk. You need to restock your mental and emotional energy via regular short breaks away from your workspace. Take a short walk, eat lunch outside, or try some brief stretches.
  • Turn off your digital devices — Set yourself a deadline each day (say, 7 or 8 p.m.) after which you will not look at your phone or email. Actual rest requires psychologically, as well as physically, detaching from the office.
  • Make time outside office hours for hobbies — It’s crucial to make time for restorative, non-work experiences, says psychologist Ron Friedman. Making plans to play tennis, cook a meal, or read a novel means that you’re actively focusing on achieving a non-work goal (rather than having a stress-inducing goal of not checking work email).
  • Take a couple of days off — Use what vacation time you have available to you. That might not mean a two-week vacation; long weekends can be just as effective. What is crucial, though, is that you completely shut off from work during this time and focus solely on yourself.

These are just a few recommendations. There’s more great advice over on the ABA Journal.

Warning: Stress can cause severe health problems. While the advice here has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns.

Want more practical advice on staying happy and healthy at work? Download our free wellness guide for legal professionals:

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2 Comments

  1. Kelly Reply

    How do you communicate potential burnout to your boss who might not have any idea what it is and how it affects employees

    1. Richard Heinrich Reply

      Hi Kelly, it can be difficult to communicate with some bosses about burnout. I suggest pointing them towards articles like this or articles in publications like the ABA Journal that introduce the subject like this http://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2015/may-june/how_avoid_less_spectacular_burnout_your_law_practice.html and http://www.americanbar.org/publications/law_practice_magazine/2012/may_june/burnout-avoidable-not-inevitable.html. If you have genuine concerns about burnout it’s important to talk to your boss about them as it can have serious consequences. —Richard

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