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8 warning signs of lawyer burnout and what to do about it

Warning Signs Lawyer Burnout
Are you just a little stressed out, or are you feeling the beginnings of burnout? Here's how to recognize burnout in yourself and your firm, plus some tips on how to handle it.

In the fast-paced and high-pressure world of law, the path to success often comes at a cost – lawyer burnout.

The legal profession is no stranger to the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can result from prolonged stress and overwork.

Fortunately, you can spot the early warning signs before burnout causes bigger problems in your work and personal life. Here’s what you should look for, both in yourself and from other members of your firm.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the insidious nature of lawyer burnout, its crippling effects on legal professionals, and, most importantly, strategies and insights on how to recognize, prevent, and ultimately conquer this formidable adversary.

Do lawyers work long hours?

The short answer is yes, of course, and the implications of this can be significant.

Did you know that burnout is classified as an occupational disease? Lawyer burnout can cause serious health problems like insomnia, fatigue, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes.

Attorneys and legal professionals work in high-stress environments, often for long hours. In fact, lawyers work an average of 54 hours a week, and it’s not uncommon for some to work upwards of 100 hours when the firm is especially busy. With working conditions like these, it’s not surprising that burnout is a big issue in legal professions.

It’s not just lawyers who experience problems with overwork and the challenges of a stressful environment. Legal aid burnout is just as common — and just as problematic.

The World Health Organization specifies three major components of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity and cynicism related to one’s job, and
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness or a lack of accomplishment

These symptoms can manifest in unexpected ways. Because burnout happens gradually, you can develop a serious problem that goes unacknowledged until you’re no longer able to do your job.

Why do lawyers experience burnout?

Attorneys don’t need to be told that they work in a high-stress environment and are prone to burning out.

Lawyers are subject to significant emotional burden, with international research highlighting their susceptibility to psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and — shockingly — even suicide.

Burnout, characterized by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, is a common consequence of the demanding nature of legal work.

It should come as little surprise that there are significant correlations between lawyer burnout and workload, over-engagement, decision latitude, engagement, and other factors.

Lawyers with high work demands and high over-engagement had an increased risk of burnout. Conversely, decision latitude and engagement have been associated with reduced burnout.

How many lawyers experience burnout?

A Bloomberg Law survey conducted in the last quarter of 2021 reveals that lawyers are increasingly experiencing burnout and a decline in their overall well-being.

Key lawyer burnout statistics from the survey include:

  • Burnout levels: Lawyers reported experiencing burnout 52% of the time, marking the highest level since the quarterly survey began in 2020. This percentage was 44% in the third quarter and 47% in the fourth quarter of 2021.
  • Decline in well-being: In the fourth quarter of 2021, 46% of lawyers noted a worsening of their well-being, compared to 34% in the third quarter and 30% in the second quarter.
  • Job satisfaction and well-being: Lawyers with a decline in well-being had an average job satisfaction score of 4.1 on a 10-point scale. In contrast, those with unchanged well-being averaged 6.7, and those reporting improved well-being scored an average of 7.3.
  • Common issues with declining well-being: Lawyers experiencing a decline in well-being reported various challenges, including disrupted sleep (83%), anxiety (81%), personal relationship issues (47%), and depression (43%).
  • Challenges identified: Challenges contributing to declining well-being included an inability to disconnect from work (79%), heavier workloads or professional responsibilities (78%), and difficulty focusing on work tasks (61%).

Overall, the survey highlights a concerning trend of increased burnout and declining well-being among lawyers, with various factors contributing to these challenges.

Warning signs of lawyer burnout

People deal with stress in a lot of different ways. Keep in mind that the people in your firm might show the same warning signs in different ways. For example, one person might be snappish and irritable when they’re exhausted, while another becomes quieter and more withdrawn.

As you read through this list, consider some of the other ways that these warning signs might manifest.

Exhaustion

Every legal professional gets a little worn out sometimes. However, persistent and extreme fatigue are warning signs of a deeper problem. If you feel constantly worn out, and it affects your ability to work and function, burnout might be the cause.

Exhaustion is both physical and emotional. It’s kind of like running out of fuel — you’ve exhausted your internal resources so that it’s difficult to function. You may have more trouble making decisions, exercising willpower, controlling your responses, and performing work that you don’t enjoy.

Often, people experiencing burnout struggle with sleeplessness, which makes the problem of exhaustion worse.

Trouble focusing

That same depletion of mental resources erodes focus. It’s harder to stay on task and productive when you’re burnt out. The same jobs take much more effort, and the more you force yourself to power through a job, the less energy you have for the next thing on your to-do list.

Lost motivation is another symptom of burnout that impacts your effectiveness at work. You may have plenty of energy to spend on distractions like social media and television, but no motivation to do much else.

When you look at others in your firm, you may see a sharp drop in productivity as burnout sets in. You probably won’t see them struggling with their energy and willpower levels, but you will be able to see the results; less work gets done. If someone in your firm starts finishing work late or making more mistakes, check in to see if burnout is the deeper issue.

Irritability

Burnout can make you snappish, impatient, and moodier. Often, people experiencing burnout go through intense mood swings with relatively little provocation.

Even if you manage to keep your temper with your coworkers and clients, an irritable disposition still creates problems at work. If you notice that you feel annoyed at every minor inconvenience, that’s an early warning sign that you should check-in. Maybe your work-life balance needs some adjustment, or maybe there are other warning signs you’re ignoring.

Depression

Depression is frequently misunderstood. It’s not simply a feeling of sadness, even if that feeling is intense. It’s a serious illness with major mental and physical symptoms.

Sadness is one of the symptoms of depression, but sufferers also experience:

  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss or weight gain unrelated to dieting
  • Loss of energy
  • Deep fatigue
  • Changes to sleep patterns, including insomnia and sleeping for much longer than usual
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Memory loss
  • Body aches
  • Feeling trapped, defeated, or worthless
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, seek professional help. Even if you adjust your work environment and remove triggers, depression is a medical issue, and you might need additional treatment to regain your health.

More frequent illnesses because your immune system is compromised

Chronic stress causes myriad health problems, including things like digestion issues, pain, heart disease, memory problems, and more. Dealing with ongoing stress weakens your immune system, which makes you more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses. That’s especially concerning during a global pandemic, isn’t it?

One of the reasons burnout is so expensive for companies is the increase in absenteeism. Experts calculate that US businesses lose a whopping $120 billion to $190 billion every year.

If you notice that you’re catching every cold that goes around, or if people in your firm are calling out sick more often, that could be a warning sign.

Anxiety

Working in the legal field comes with a bit of emotional stress, but anxiety goes beyond that and becomes an impediment to your work.

When you struggle with anxiety, it’s difficult to calm your mind.

While you’re at home, you worry about all the work that’s left to do. When you’re at work, you worry about not spending enough time with your family. You might worry about your cases, your job security, your friendships, and your grocery list.

Anxiety can keep you awake at night. It can also trigger your fight or flight response, flooding your bloodstream with hormones and adrenaline that make it difficult to work and focus.

Social withdrawal

While experiencing burnout, some people lash out. Others tend to withdraw.

One of the less obvious signs of burnout – especially in a remote firm – is reduced engagement and a step back from both work and social relationships. This might look like a normally chatty coworker participating less in conversations. It could even be active avoidance of group settings.

Watch for changes in social behavior in your firm.

For yourself, pay attention to how you feel when you’re in group settings. If you’re more reluctant than usual to socialize, try getting to the root of that feeling. It may be part of a bigger problem.

Self-medication

To escape or dull the pain of burnout, legal professionals sometimes turn to alcohol, drugs (both legal and not), and other self-medicating behaviors.

These emotional crutches aren’t always obvious. Perhaps you find comfort in food, and this leads to frequent binge eating. Someone who likes to escape into entertainment might spend long hours watching mindless TV.

There’s nothing wrong with having a rich meal, watching a few episodes of your favorite Netflix series, or having a couple of drinks at happy hour. It only becomes a problem when the behavior becomes compulsive, or when overindulgence leads to nasty side effects.

Escapism can be a healthy coping mechanism. Pay close attention to your favorite escapes, though. If you lean on them too hard, it’s probably time to address the root cause.

What to do about lawyer burnout

The warning signs are there. Maybe you realize that you’re reaching a breaking point, or maybe you’re concerned about someone else at your firm. What can you do to help?

There are two important steps to take to address burnout:

First, you must address the immediate symptoms to provide relief and avoid a crisis.

Then, you must address the underlying causes of burnout, such as work-life imbalances and stressors in the work environment. Without this critical step, the negative effects of burnout will be difficult to combat. Even if you manage the symptoms, the problem will keep coming back until the environment changes.

Addressing burnout for individuals

Every person recovers from burnout differently. We’ll give you some suggestions in this section that you can adapt to work for you.

If you’re experiencing depression, severe anxiety, or other stress-related illnesses that affect your ability to work and live, it’s wise to seek professional help. Counseling or therapy help you identify triggers, build healthy coping skills, and improve your well-being for the long term.

As soon as you realize that you’re dealing with burnout, it’s time to set healthy boundaries. Let your coworkers and clients know that you will be unreachable during certain hours, then stick to that schedule.

One of the most common reasons that legal professionals burn out is that work follows them home and invades their personal time. This is especially difficult while working from home because it’s so easy to stop by your computer to answer messages or finish open tasks.

Start by removing work communication channels from your personal phone. Delete Slack, email, and any work-related apps that you’re tempted to check during your personal time. If you can’t remove the apps altogether, set your phone on Do Not Disturb so that work-related alerts can’t interrupt your personal time.

Consider adopting stress-reducing hobbies like massage therapy, yoga, meditation, or journaling. Try a digital detox to help strengthen your mental defenses.

You might also want to reduce how much time you spend on social media, as frequent scrolling has been linked to higher rates of depression and loneliness.

Most importantly, reconnect with your personal priorities. Spend time doing the things that you love, whether that’s having an uninterrupted dinner with your family or going backpacking on the weekends. If work has crept into your personal time, make a conscious effort to take that time back.

Fixing the root causes of burnout at your firm

Most likely, you’re not the only one feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Work conditions have a lot to do with the likelihood of burnout. If you have the influence, it’s well worth your effort to set policies that make it easier for people at your firm to unplug and recover.

Set limits on emails, messages, and other work communications outside of normal working hours. This can be a hard habit to break, but it’s crucial to give people the space and time they need to totally step away from work.

Next, take a close look at work conditions.

  • How are relations between people?
  • Do people take breaks and step away from work for lunch?
  • Does everyone have a clean, comfortable place to work?
  • Are there any other environmental stressors that make it difficult for people to do their jobs?
  • Are productivity expectations realistic in a regular workweek?

One of the hardest things to address is an unrealistic workload.

You might feel like it’s necessary for everyone to put in extra time and effort to get things done because otherwise, you’ll get too far behind, but this kind of work ethic is unsustainable. Trying to force yourself and others to carry too much work leads to breakdown, which will put you even further behind.

Remember that setting boundaries and protecting the well-being of your people is an investment in your firm’s future. Small sacrifices now prevent major problems later.

Conclusion

Lawyer burnout, a common issue in the high-pressure legal field, should not be underestimated in terms of the damage it can do to your health.

Prolonged stress and grueling hours take a toll on legal professionals, manifesting as exhaustion, impaired focus, irritability, and even depression.

Physical manifestations, heightened anxiety, social withdrawal, or self-medication serve as crucial warning signs. To combat burnout, a dual strategy is essential.

Immediate symptom alleviation and crisis prevention are critical, especially for severe cases warranting professional help.

Addressing root causes like work-life imbalances and stressful environments is paramount for long-term well-being. Recognizing and combating burnout isn’t a sign of weakness but a proactive stance for a fulfilling career and life.

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