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What to do about burnout

10 April 2015

Much has been written over the years about the high incidence of depression among lawyers. Another condition that does not receive the same exposure, yet has a high incidence in the profession, is burnout.

In fact, some of the characteristics that have been identified as contributing to clinical depression in lawyers also play a role in contributing to burnout.

Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, PhD writes: “Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: ‘If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail’. Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.”

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout – they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

What is burnout?

Burnout is characterised by emotional and cognitive exhaustion. One of the authorities on burnout, Christina Maslach, developed an assessment tool, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). It measures three burnout dimensions:

  • emotional exhaustion;
  • depersonalisation (a callous, indifferent and cynical attitude towards others); and
  • reduced personal accomplishment.

The MBI led on to the formal definition of the condition as follows: “Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” (Maslach and Jackson, 1986, p1).

There is a rider on this definition, however. Many authorities argue that burnout is not restricted to people who have interactions with clients.

Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally over-extended and depleted of one’s emotional resources.

Depersonalisation involves a negative, indifferent or overly detached attitude to others.

Reduced personal accomplishment refers to a decline of feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work.

Given the stresses that many lawyers face – such as high workloads, long hours, being monitored, being judged, often being harshly criticised and not being society’s favourite profession – the real surprise is that more don’t suffer from burnout.

Warning signs

As burnout comes on over time, it is important to be aware of the warning signs. There are a series of red flags, which can be categorised as either “physical” or “mental/emotional”.

Physical

  • exhaustion, tiredness or lack of energy;
  • headaches or backaches;
  • fast or skipping heartbeat;
  • gastric complaints;
  • sleep problems;
  • appetite changes;
  • sexual dysfunction or lost interest;
  • not taking care of yourself; and
  • dropping work performance.

Mental

  • lack of motivation;
  • feeling impatient, frustrated, cynical or other negative emotions;
  • feeling overwhelmed;
  • feeling you’re on an emotional roller coaster;
  • forgetfulness;
  • inability to concentrate;
  • increased procrastination;
  • increase in interpersonal problems;
  • loss of interest in things you once enjoyed; and
  • feeling you don’t want to go to work.

Many of these “red flags” are not confined to burnout, however, but having a number of these would suggest that it’s time to take a look at what is going on.

Another sign that a person is burned out can be a change in how they operate. If you observe this in a colleague, it may be that they need help, possibly your help.

A former work colleague of mine (who has since moved to Australia) suffered burnout. He was in a general manager role and, in quite a short space of time, moved from a person who saw the “big picture” and made well-reasoned high level decisions in an appropriate time frame, to a person who spent many hours focused on detail, often “mere detail” and took an inordinate amount of time to make a decision. He had to step down from his general manager role, took time out, sought counselling and recovered.

What can help

There are a variety of things people can do to help them move away from being burnt out. These include:

Taking a long holiday

Particularly if the burnout is relatively serious, a good approach may be to take a long holiday, or a leave of absence. This can be one of the best ways to start recovering from burnout. It gives you both the time and distance from work that you need to relax and de-stress. It also gives you time to come up with long-term solutions to burnout.

Making time for relaxing

This may seem obvious, but it is important to have time to relax. This can include doing things you enjoy, such as listening to music, reading a book or taking a walk. It can also include activities such as meditation. Set aside time for these activities. It’s also important not to miss breaks during work time – the morning and afternoon tea breaks and lunch time. It’s all too easily to work through your breaks, but it should be a rare occurrence.

Learning to ‘decompress’

Christina Maslach wrote about one strategy for dealing with high pressure and she called it “decompression”. She talked about what to do when moving from a situation with one level of pressure (say, work) to a situation of another pressure (say, battling peak hour traffic in the car) to a situation of another pressure (say, walking in the door at home). Just as divers need to decompress when moving from one pressure to another, a decompression-style activity can assist where the pressure is physical and mental, rather than atmospheric pressure. That “decompression” activity could be as simple as going for a walk. The important thing is that it takes a set time and it is time where you are having a break (just as the diver has to simply wait for the time to pass).

Cultivating a rich non-work life

Find or develop something outside of work that you really enjoy. It could be a sporting activity, a hobby or volunteering in the community. There’s a particular reward that comes with activities where we are not being rewarded with money. It also provides an interest, a focus that is outside work, and that gives work a different perspective.

Getting away from work

Emails, mobiles and even the traditional phone can keep bringing you back to work even though it’s outside work hours. Modern expectations about availability means that it may not be possible to totally avoid responding to work matters outside work hours. It is important, however, to set boundaries around this. Consider strategies such as turning off your phone at dinner time, or only dealing with work emails at certain times.

Getting enough sleep

A number of research projects have indicated that having fewer than six hours of sleep per night is a major risk factor for burnout. Not only can insufficient sleep lead to fatigue, it can also reduce your job performance and productivity, thereby increasing your stress. Recovering from chronic stress and burnout requires removing or reducing the demands on you and replenishing your resources. Sleep is one strategy for replenishing those resources.

Managing your stress

Just as lack of sleep is a major risk factor for burnout, so is stress, particularly unrelenting stress. Look at ways of managing your stress, including going on a stress management course or studying stress management. Just how you manage stress will differ with your situation. A barrister who has just spent the last 12 weeks, say, intensively working on litigation may decide that it is time for a break. Saying “no” to work when one is employed may not be an option. It may be that delegation, or some other strategy, needs to be employed. Employing stress management strategies such as prioritisation and organisation can help significantly reduce the pressure too.

Tuning in to what your body is saying

There are usually signs that you are under an unhealthy level of stress. It may be a physical sign, such as a sore neck, headaches or your stomach playing up. Take note of these signs and do something about it. In terms of mental health, issues like depression, anxiety, and irritability can be an indicator. In the case of depression, it pays to be particularly alert, as burnout affects depression, and if you’re depressed, that can also affect your level of burnout. If the issues you’re facing are really serious and getting worse, you may need to seek professional help. It may well be time to talk to your doctor or to a psychologist.

Reassessing your goals

One cause of burnout is a poor alignment between your work and your core values or your long-term goals. You can also burn out if you don’t know what your goals are. A good place to begin is to identify your values, what gives you meaning in your life and work. Use this to develop a personal mission statement. Then think about how you can align your mission, your values and your goals to your current role at work. It may mean adjusting your job to make it a better fit for you, or it may mean changing the way you view your work. It may even mean seeking another role.

Eating well and exercising

A good diet and regular exercise are beneficial to all areas of health. That includes burnout. For some people, particularly if they are in the early stages of burnout, a good, long holiday and making sure they eat and sleep well and get regular exercise is all they need to do to solve their issue. 

Last updated on the 17th March 2016