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Lawyer Burnout and Its Prevention

by Shrisha Sapkota

case management software, practice management software, legal accounting software, legaltech, technology for lawyers, case management, immigration, london, united kingdom

What is Burnout? 

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped which is a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical and mental stress and in many cases, burnout is related to one’s job1. Burnout is the experience of chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism and inefficacy, which is a sense of lost impact2. It is not an interchangeable word with general stress but is oftentimes used that way by people to describe a whole range of stressors3. According to the World Health Organization, burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed4. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy5. Also, the other major reasons for burnout include unmanageable workloads, unfair treatment at work, confusing work responsibilities, lack of communication or support from managers and immense deadline pressure6. Thus, burnout happens when a person is overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands7. It reduces the person’s energy, making them feel hopeless, cynical and resentful which can affect their personal, work and social life8. Burnout has become a hot topic for professionals in 2019 and millennials are not the only employees at risk9. 

 

Burnout in lawyers 

Lawyers are known for overworking and having difficulties managing stress. In a John Hopkins study, lawyers rated the highest in the rate of depression among 100 occupations. It is a demanding profession on several levels, and this can take a tremendous toll10. The combination of continuous and extraordinarily demanding mental focus with long periods of sedentary work make burnout, particularly prevalent11. Long hours in front of the computer, mounting billable hour pressures, client-side demands for immediate responsiveness and quicker turnaround times and work on confidential matters fuel alienation and exhaustion12. At a macro level, the legal profession is becoming more complex, and is for many firms and corporate legal departments, growing at an unprecedented rate13. At the organisational, team and leader levels, the lawyers feel like they lack autonomy, mentoring or support, do not know what’s expected of them at their different levels of practice, general workload unpredictability, loneliness and a whole host of issues related to the pandemic drive stress and burnout14. Perfectionism, isolation and pessimism are why lawyers tend to rank in the bottom percentile of emotional resilience, despite our hard work ethic, razor-blade cognitive abilities and high adaptability and it is low emotional resilience that primes them for burnout15. 

The core job demands legal organisations and teams need to address to decrease the likelihood of burnout are as follows: 

  1. Lack of autonomy (having some choice as to how and when you perform the tasks related to your work) 
  1. High workload and work pressure (particularly problematic in combination with too few resources) 
  1. Lack of leader/colleague support (not feeling a sense of belonging at work) 
  1. Unfairness (favouritism; arbitrary decision-making) 
  1. Values disconnect (what a lawyer finds important about work doesn’t match the environment they are in) 
  1. Lack of recognition (no feedback)16. 

These are organisational issues that can’t be fixed with yoga, meditation, or wellness apps17. Most large law firms run mental health awareness programs under corporate jargon terms like “wellness” but many working in the profession question whether these programs represent an honest commitment to reducing long hours and damaging working cultures18. 

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened this issue and brought to light how the imbalance in a lawyer’s work-life plays on their mental health and overall wellbeing19. With more legal professionals working remotely, it’s harder than ever to create boundaries, and burnout is at an all-time high20. New stressors brought on by the pandemic such as isolation due to working remotely, home child care and learning, disconnection from family members, or even deaths from the pandemic have thrown new curveballs for lawyers to deal with on top of their work21. Attorneys accustomed to client interactions and in-person litigation now see their days filled with email communications and Zoom meetings22. For many attorneys, networking events provided a crucial lifeline to client referrals23. With the pandemic, networking went virtual, making it much harder to mingle and create meaningful professional ties24. The lack of human connection has made what was oftentimes an already solitary profession into one that is more isolated, even lonely25. 

 

The University of Sydney Brain and Mind Research Institute published its landmark paper Courting the Blues: attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers in 2007, surveying nearly 2,500 Australian law students, solicitors and barristers about their mental health26. Thirty-three percent of lawyers and twenty percent of barristers reported that they were suffering disability and distress due to depression27. This compares to seventeen per cent of the general population who are suffering a mental illness, according to the Black Dog Institute28. Gallup found the employees feeling burnt out were sixty-three percent more likely to take a sick day and twenty-three percent more likely to visit a hospital emergency room29 

Moreover, the damage due to burnout is physical, emotional and psychological30. Over years, it accumulates into a state of total exhaustion and can lead to mental and physical collapse31. Research shows that almost every system in the body is impacted by chronic stress and when it goes untreated, it suppresses the body’s immune system which can lead to illness32. Not only do these effects become detrimental to the person’s health, but they also begin to impact family, work and social relations33. 

 

Effect of Lawyer Burnout on Law Firms 

More than half of lawyers in a recent survey among UK law firms said talent retention is one of the biggest threats facing the profession in the coming years34. With the legal profession frequently ranked as one of the most stressful jobs, burnout is on the rise: ninety-six percent of UK lawyers are reporting that they experience negative stress, and nineteen percent are saying that stress is ‘extreme’ causing mistakes or burnout35. Lawyer burnout can be a real problem leading to more issues related to productivity that could otherwise have been avoided, and in some cases, can cut short the careers of talented lawyers36. As a result, it is no surprise that lawyers are increasingly exiting the industry altogether to pursue other options37. 

Aside from the overall health and well-being of employees, burnout significantly increases the risk of turnover and that’s losing firms billions of dollars each year in recruiting costs38. Depending on the size of the firm, the National Association for Law Placement found that losing just one associate can cost between $200,000 and $500,00039. However, only a handful of studies address burnout in the legal profession40 

Outside of the legal sector, where there’s more data available on the impact of burnout, it has been shown that chronically stressed employees are significantly less productive than healthy employees, almost seventy percent less productive according to some accounts41. For U.S. businesses overall, experts estimate that burnout generates losses of anywhere from $150 to $350 billion annually42. Studies show that employee job satisfaction and engagement is linked to a host of organisational success factors, including lower turnover, high client satisfaction and higher productivity and profitability43. Lawyer wellbeing can contribute to organisational success in law firms, corporations and government entities44. 

 

How can Burnouts in Lawyers be Prevented? 

 

Healthier Workplace 

The heavy workload and long hours culture in the law can be detrimental to lawyers’ wellbeing they need time to relax, recover and see friends and family45. While lunchtime yoga, some healthy lunch options and subsidised gym memberships are great and should be maintained, these are far from being enough46 

According to the “Areas of Worklife” model, workload is only one of the six contributors to burnout47. Control, reward, fairness, community and values are the other five elements48. These other contributors revolve around feeling supported, appreciated and safe49. 

Establishing a culture of trust and transparency among staff, partners and owners can encourage employees to speak openly about inappropriate behaviour and policy violations, allowing leadership to stop harassment and discrimination before it escalates50. A healthy workplace facilitates open communication, which helps prevent and address problems like harassment and discrimination early on51. Just thirty percent of employees who experience workplace harassment report it. In a healthy work environment, employees can trust that they will be credited for their contributions and held accountable for their mistakes52. They take their bosses at their word and don’t carry the anger or resentment of shouldering the blame for someone else’s actions53. 

Lifestyle Changes 

Lawyers need to replenish physical and emotional energy, along with their capacity to focus, by prioritising good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection and practises that promote equanimity and well-being, like meditating, journaling and enjoying nature54. Dr Steven Reiss, a research psychologist, conducted studies involving more than 6,000 people and found that 16 core desires can motivate our behaviour: power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honour, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise and tranquillity55. 

“Self-care is dependent on the individual. It is based on what helps them to feel more like they’re in their natural state, which is the thing, place or feeling that would happen if there were no pressure on them, the thing they would want to do,” said Robert L. Bogue, co-author of “Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery56.” 

 

“When you’re operating outside of your natural state, you are consuming energy,” he explained57. “The more in alignment you become, the less you’re demanding of yourself and the more personal agency you build up58.” Put simply, the individual needs to know what restores them and invest in those activities to prevent burnout59. 

On an individual level, it is important to build and maintain healthy habits60. This means that sleeping adequately, spending more time outdoors outside of working hours, taking regular breaks, learning how to breathe well to regulate stress, eating nutritious food, practising mindfulness techniques and exercising regularly, can have a significant impact on whether a lawyer thrives or burns out61. Sleep serves many purposes, including regulating our mood, clearing waste from our brain and re-energising our cells62. That’s why not getting enough sleep is one of the main risk factors for developing burnout, and improving sleep quality can help individuals with even a clinical burnout problem recover enough to return to work63. 

Moreover, group activities and quality time with co-workers provide an opportunity to pull back from the regularly stressful work situations and can also help reduce animosity among colleagues created by stress64. The best antidote to burnout, particularly when it’s driven by cynicism and inefficacy, is seeking out rich interpersonal interactions and continual personal and professional development65. 

Moreover, adopting a healthier lifestyle by eating a healthy diet filled with omega-3 fatty acids can be a natural antidepressant66. Adding foods rich in omega-3s like flaxseed oil, walnuts and fish may help give the lawyers’ mood a boost67. 

 

Adopting a Legal Software  

The workload puzzle is a difficult one to solve and involves a broad mix of factors, such as not enough personnel, too many meetings, too few resources, unknown resources not being leveraged, too much email, insufficient ways of teaming and more68. The law firm should determine which of these factors are high-workload drivers in their firm and be clear when giving assignments to minimise conflicting requests and ambiguity69. 

Thus, software such as Good Law Software comes in handy. It reduces time spent on day to day tasks by automating processes so that lawyers don’t have to stress about small things. The performance dashboard helps to measure the performance of the employees of the law firm which assists in knowing more about the stress and work level of particular employees as well.  

To know more about burnouts and their prevention, read our other blog here. 

case management software, practice management software, legal accounting software, legaltech, technology for lawyers, case management, immigration, london, united kingdom

References

1https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs#:~:text=Burnout%20is%20a%20form%20of,up%20with%20life’s%20incessant%20demands. 

2 https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavis/2021/04/27/how-to-address-burnout-in-the-legal-profession/ 

3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauladavis/2021/04/27/how-to-address-burnout-in-the-legal-profession/ 

4https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases 

5https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases 

6https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs#:~:text=Burnout%20is%20a%20form%20of,up%20with%20life’s%20incessant%20demands

7https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs#:~:text=Burnout%20is%20a%20form%20of,up%20with%20life’s%20incessant%20demands

 8https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs#:~:text=Burnout%20is%20a%20form%20of,up%20with%20life’s%20incessant%20demands

9 https://lsj.com.au/articles/the-burnout-profession