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Stress, Burnout & Balance

Practicing law is stressful. Practicing medicine is stressful, too, but there is a difference, as illustrated in this example we often use in our CLE presentations:

As a lawyer, you are like a brain surgeon. Imagine the patient is laid out on the table in front of you. It is your job to operate and save his life. You are bringing all of your training, knowledge, and skills to bear to try to save the patient’s life. Now imagine that you have another doctor standing on the other side of the table—equally skilled, equally trained—and his primary goal is to kill the patient that you are trying to save. Now imagine you have 10 to 12 of these patients a day. And now imagine that after you have saved these patients’ lives (and sacrificed time with your own family to do it), the patients are all complaining about your fee and refusing to pay.

Are you getting the picture? This silly example may seem far-fetched, but in reality lawyers are often under that kind of emotional pressure and stress day-in and day-out.

The sheer volume of work adds another dimension of stress. When we are especially pressured for time, the first activities we discard are those that do not produce a useful end product or advance the ball toward the goal line. Namely, we discard vacations and hobbies and interests outside of our professional life. The reality of practice today is that every day you are out of the office is another day you’re behind; it’s another day you have to catch up upon your return. Yet those outside hobbies and interests and those vacations are what trigger the release of all the “good stuff” in our limbic brains, which sustains us during times of stress.

Think of your limbic brain like a piggy bank of emotional resilience. Every day you have a client with bad facts you have to take a penny out. Every day you have a difficult or unreasonable client you have to take a penny out. Every day you see clients in intense distress you have to take a penny out. The list is endless. You have to put pennies in that piggy bank every now and then. It is actually more important for lawyers to have hobbies and interests outside of work and to take vacations than for people working in other industries. Other professions are much more collaborative than the legal profession. We, as lawyers, actually need more emotional resilience in the face of our competitive, combative, and conflict-driven professional culture. And like the little kid who smashes the piggy bank looking for those last pennies, if we have not nourished ourselves emotionally, we too will break.

Burnout is a step or two past compassion fatigue. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. Burnout is different from stress itself, as the chart on the following page illustrates.

Burnout is a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can creep up on you if you’re not paying attention to the warning signals. The signs and symptoms of burnout are subtle at first, but they get more pronounced as time goes on.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches (migraines), back pain, muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

There are many contributing factors that can lead to burnout.

Work-related causes of burnout:

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Lack of recognition or rewards for good work
  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
  • Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging
  • Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment

Lifestyle causes of burnout:

  • Working too much without enough time for relaxing and socializing
  • Being expected (by ourselves or others) to be too many things to too many people
  • Taking on too many responsibilities without enough help from others
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships

Personality traits can contribute to burnout:

  • Perfectionistic
  • Pessimistic view
  • The need to be in control
  • Reluctance to delegate tasks
  • High-achieving, Type-A personality

Sound like anyone you know? The really good news is that we have some control over healing from burnout. If you recognize the warning signs of burnout in yourself, remember that it will only get worse if ignored. But if you take steps to get your life back into balance, you can prevent burnout from becoming a full-blown breakdown.

Finding Balance

Here are some strategies for preventing burnout and maintaining a sense of emotional well-being and balance.

Start the day differently. Rather than jumping out of bed as soon as you wake up, spend at least 15 minutes meditating, writing in your journal, doing yoga, or reading something that inspires you.

Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. Proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise provide the energy and resilience to deal with the daily demands of a law practice.

Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests for your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that you truly want to do. It can take a while to realize clients will not fire you if you do not cater to their every whim and demand. A very successful strategy is to substitute what you can do as an option when you cannot do what a client wants at that moment. For example, you are leaving the office on a Wednesday for some form of travel (business or pleasure) and will not be back until Monday. A client calls just as you are about to leave and says, “It is urgent. I have to see you this afternoon.” Instead of canceling your plans, try telling the client, “I was just about to leave the office and will not be back until Monday. Let’s meet first thing on Monday to get this taken care of for you. What time works better for you: 9:30, 11:30, or 2:00?” You will be surprised how effective this strategy is.

Take a daily break from technology. Completely disconnect from technology when you get home (or after business hours). Put away your laptop, turn off your smartphone, and stop checking email.

Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work. As explained above, these activities in particular help nourish the limbic brain, which provides greater emotional resilience.

Past the Breaking Point

Sometimes it’s too late to prevent burnout—you’re already past the breaking point. If that’s the case, it’s important to take burnout very seriously. Trying to push through the exhaustion and continue as you have been will only cause further emotional and physical damage.

When you’ve reached the end stage of burnout, adjusting your attitude or looking after your health isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to force yourself to slow down or take a break. Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.

Burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to change course accordingly.

The most effective way to combat job burnout is to quit doing what you’re doing and do something else, whether that means changing jobs or changing practice areas, and for some lawyers even changing careers. But if that isn’t an option for you, there are still things you can do to improve your situation, or at least your state of mind.

Actively address problems. Take a proactive rather than a passive approach to issues in your workplace, including stress at work. You’ll feel less helpless if you assert yourself and express your needs. If you don’t have the authority or resources to solve the problem, talk to a superior. Or, if you are the supervisor, take the risk to delegate more.

Ask for new duties. If you’ve been doing the exact same work for a long time, try something new—a different practice area, a different focus within your current practice area, a different role within your practice area.

Take time off. If burnout has progressed to the breaking point, take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Delegate work to an associate or partner. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and gain some perspective. Most lawyers think they have no choice and that this is not an option, which is usually followed by forced time off in the form of hospitalization. None of us is indispensable. You may be surprised to find more support within your firm than you imagined when taking some time off.

The LAP has helped thousands of lawyers navigate the process of finding better boundaries with our professional lives. At first it can seem really impractical, unattainable, or downright scary—we are sure we will lose our good reputations with our clients. Thousands of lawyers in NC can testify that this is not the case. There is a pathway to practicing law that does not emotionally demolish us in the process. It is a unique pathway for each lawyer. The LAP provides support and assistance all along the way. If we can assist you in this process, call or email us today.

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