5 ‘Lawyer Burnout’ Symptoms and How To Avoid Them For The Good Of Your Health

5 'Lawyer Burnout' Symptoms and How To Avoid Them For The Good Of Your Health 2

LawFuel Editors – Lawyer ‘burnout’ is an increasing phenomenon unfortunately and the stressful nature of legal work, its competition and the excessive work hours has seen wellness and mental health issues become increasingly problematic.

There have been signs across multiple jurisdictions of the problem from the largest jurisdictions where there have been signs of major stress-related issues, to smaller jurisdictions where the same problems arise.

For instance, two mental health surveys conducted in 2016 in the United States set off alarm bells about the state of lawyer wellness. According to a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 21 per cent of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers, 28 per cent suffer from some level of depression and 19 per cent struggle with symptoms of anxiety.

A recent article in Legal Futures from a UK lawyer who burned out showed how she had gone from being a lawyer to helping them.

We have reported on the issue with lawyers in New Zealand which showed that a 2019 survey indicated 51 per cent of New Zealand lawyers used alcohol, drugs or resignation as a means of dealing with high stress.

The results are little different in Australia or other jurisdictions where an addiction to work, billing and related issues has shown a major issue for lawyers suffering from anxiety, depression and alcohol and drug dependency.

However, there are signs and ways you can avoid the problem if you take note of the key factors that serve as ‘burnout giveaway’ signs.

First, What IS Lawyer Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an occupational hazard—“a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

The WHO outlines some of the signs of burnout, including:

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Pulling away mentally from a job
  • Work-related cynicism

Why Are Lawyers So Susceptible to Burnout?

5 'Lawyer Burnout' Symptoms and How To Avoid Them For The Good Of Your Health 3

Lawyers may be generally more susceptible to burnout for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being their personality type. Generally they are high-achieving and work with an intensity and ambition that can lead towards increased stress.

They generally are a personality type that a person generally has a high-achieving personality—once practicing law, that intensity and ambitious drive can lead to stress that, eventually, builds towards burnout. 

They are also prone to perfectionism, which leads to stress. A case win or failure can lead to a sense of perceived, if not actual failure.

And the work hours can be horrific. The 2018 Legal Trends Report surveyed lawyers to find out about their working hours, and found that 75 per cent of lawyers frequently outside of regular business hours.

Lawyers also work, on average, about 140 ‘unplanned’ hours each year, which is around 3.5 hours a week.

And the professional culture of law firms involves and has even celebrated the overwork ‘badge of honor’, which shows how the profession is rooted to the culture of hitting the books hard to win the case.

5 Signs of Lawyer Burnout To Watch For

Lawyer burnout doesn’t happen overnight but it builds up over time.

To deal with it it is important to recognize the symptoms of lawyer burnout so you can recognize them and act accordingly.

A great deal of this requires a degree of mindfulness that requires that you ‘listen to yourself’ and pay attention to your feelings.

An important part of protecting against burnout is recognizing it and when it feels it may be overwhelming you.

1. Fatigue or Exhaustion

Extreme fatigue, even when you get what you may believe is adequate sleep, could be a sign that you’re more than just sleep deprived after several long days at the office. This is an exhaustion that goes beyond mere sleep deprivation and it also requires more than a few days off to correct.

2. A Feeling of Detachment or Cynicism

You will not have the former excitement or passion for work and will be feeling that nothing that happens really matters. Getting to the point where you dread the thought of getting to the office for another day’s (and night’s) work is a classic symptom of burnout.

3. Inability to Concentrate

The inability to concentrate is another sure sign of a problem – often burnout. This comes totally with the feeling of not being able to care about what you’re doing. You’re more than distracted, you are actually at a point where you’re mind is unwilling and even unable to do the job.

4. Your Relationships and Work-Life Balance Are in Jeopardy

Working so much that you’re missing out on your family and personal time will detract from your health and mental health too. You will be missing key family or relationship time as well as your overall work-life balance. This will be accompanied often by extreme stress and probably guilt about the situation.

5. You’re Stuck in A Tough Space

The feeling of being ‘stuck’ is one that generally will involve an accompanying feeling that there’s nothing you can do to make progress and break out of that state. This may lead to self-doubt and a feeling of being inadequate or just unable to handle what you have before you.

How can a lawyer prevent burnout?

photo of a charger

For overworked lawyers on the verge of burnout it’s important to act quickly. You’ll be far better off slowing down for a bit and recovering than if you push yourself to the point of total mental and physical exhaustion. 

If you think you’re at risk of burnout:

  1. step back
  2. assess your situation
  3. seek ways to deal with the problem.

Here are a selection of tactics to take when handling stress or lawyer burnout problems.

Recharge your batteries 

Sleep is an amazing antidote to a stressed situation and you need to prioritize this so that you can then go ahead in a rational and rested state to appraise yourself of what needs to happen to ‘de-stress’ and avoid burnout.

Do Things You Enjoy – Beyond Lawyering

Make a conscious effort to integrate non-work-related activities and hobbies into your day, as those non-billable hours can help make your billable hours more productive if you’re refreshed and energized. 

Sometimes you may actually be troubled by the nature of your work and a perceived or actual conflict with your own values.

Dr. Amiran Elrick, a psychologist who specializes in working with lawyers, has noted that a lack of meaning to your work can be a burnout driver. As an example,  Dr. Ron Epstein (PDF) found that doctors who found that just 20 per cent of their work was meaningful burned out significantly less than others, even when the rest of the work was placing considerable strain upon them.

Know Your Limits

If you don’t want to be burned out, you need to know (and respect) your limits, learn to say no and let go of the belief that you can handle more than you actually can.  The time factor is a major stress factor also with lawyers.

Lawyers are always up against the clock. At some point there is never enough time for what we would like to do, so you need to come to terms with the fact that there are limitations to time and to the human body and respect that fact.

Take The Non-Burnout Path

Working towards a real life of meaning and being true to your values also means understanding what and who you are. The ability to show and feel real meaning is something that is key to avoiding dreaded lawyer burnout.

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