You know what burnout feels like.
Maybe one day you realize that you’re dragging yourself to work. You might snap at staff and roll your eyes at your colleagues. Or maybe you’re drinking more water and sleeping less hours and can’t seem to get rid of that headache.
Whatever it looks like for you, burnout brings exhaustion, detachment, and a reduced ability to get things done.
Lawyers are prone to treat burnout as a kind of weakness or moral failing. At best, it’s treated like a vague personal problem. But recently, the World Health Organization redefined burnout as a serious, diagnosable condition. The redefinition was hailed as a pathway toward more professionals paying attention, getting help — and beginning to live more connected, joyful, and satisfying lives.
According to the WHO’s definition, burnout consists of:
“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 efficacy.”
One dangerous aspect of burnout is that it creates its own feedback loops. When you overwork, you tend to erode the support structures in your families and friendships, which in turn further intensifies burnout.
The WHO is also beginning to create evidence-based guidelines on how to avoid burnout, and fill gaps in the scholarly research. As we await those, here are behaviors of lawyers who are the most adept at avoiding and combating burnout, and building careers they love.
10 Tips to Triumph Over Burnout:
1. Know your own ‘tells.’
As a person nears burnout, they often shut out the warning messages coming from their own body. They push through headaches and sleeplessness and fight even harder to get their work done.
But if you know your early warning signs and catch burnout early, the road to healing is much shorter. Common physical and emotional signs include: headaches, stomach aches, irritation, fits of rage, a sensation of a knot in your stomach or throat, difficulty sleeping, difficulty waking, and reduced productivity. You may also find yourself wishing everyone (including people you love) would just leave you alone. Many people feel like they’re simply ‘not themselves’ when experiencing burnout.
What to do: Make a quick note of any physical and emotional symptoms you’ve experienced when you’ve come close to burnout. Just writing them down can be a reminder to take them seriously if they resurface.
2. Build workplace community.
No matter the work conditions, workplace culture can either fight or foster burnout. Bullies, micro-managers, and recurring conflict can make the best job horrible. On the other hand, attorneys are protected by genuine friendships and trust at work. Burnout can be contagious — but so can resilience.
When these relationships aren’t available, legal professionals need a strong support community outside their workplace to keep them going.
What to do: Regularly share positive experiences and authentic expressions of gratitude with others you work with to keep all of you more buoyant. Modern case management software or communication apps can help by giving staff a specific place to post this kind of feedback.
3. Redesign your workload.
I know, I know — it’s easier blogged than done. But it’s a simple truth: you can try every life-hack on the internet, but it won’t let you master an impossible workload.
For some, the search for a manageable workload can mean big changes, like reconsidering a career path and the role they want as a lawyer. Some positions have much more reasonable expectations and less stress.
But for many, there are ways to subtly alter a job to make it more satisfying and sustainable. The buzzword for this behavior is ‘job crafting.’ It means customizing your job to better fit your strengths and interests. Researchers see three general areas where it happens: 1) workers adjust the boundaries of their jobs (taking on tasks they like, getting rid of or altering ones they hate); 2) workers adjust their relationships at work (increasing social interaction with some, or limiting with others); 3) workers adjust their mindset about their work (seeing their day’s activity as ‘helping a worthy client’ rather than ‘filing a brief’).
But any of these changes can only happen when attorneys move away from the prevalent ‘tough-it-out’ mindset, and admit they need a change.
Significantly, research shows that you don’t have to enjoy all of your work in order to enjoy your job. You can protect yourself from burnout by liking 20% of your work — or roughly 90 minutes of an 8-hour day.
What to do: analyze ways you could ‘craft’ your job into a more manageable, meaningful, and enjoyable experience. What onerous tasks can be dropped or shared with others? Use your case management software to automate monotonous tasks. Seek out a focus or project that will help you enjoy at least 20% of your work.
4. Build a sense of control and agency.
According to psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, one core cause of burnout is a lack of control at work.
This is a particular problem for litigators, who are often at the mercy of judicial schedules and opposing counsel. Those who work in BigLaw might also find their agency stymied as they’re expected to fit into a particular routine and culture.
Obviously you can’t waltz into your boss’s office and demand total control over your workload. You can’t make judges bend their calendars to your own. But there are usually spaces where you can increase your daily agency.
This might be as simple as refusing to be at the mercy of your email inbox, or resisting the distractions of the most addicting websites. Attorneys can also rely on case management software to save them from micromanagement. With a clear task list and established timelines and priorities, managers and administrators have less of an incentive to nag about tasks. Maybe you can negotiate your attendance at pointless meetings that eat up your time.
What to do: carve out time in the morning to accomplish key tasks before checking your email. Use reports in your case management software to show others that you’re meeting your goals in a timely manner without the need of micromanagement.
5. Find your flow.
‘Flow’ is an experience of peak performance, when your mind is fully engaged in a challenge and time just slips away. Flow gives you energy, satisfaction, and a pervasive sense of well-being.
For attorneys, flow might come when writing a particularly challenging and intriguing motion. Or it may arise when you’re arguing before a jury or panel.
What to do: In general, avoid multitasking in order to increase your focus and efficiency. When diving into one of those challenging, peak performance activities, block out larger swaths of time to increase your chances of finding flow.
Outside of the office, look for leisure activities that help you reach the flow state — such as sports, music, artwork, or crafts.
6. Demand the resources you need.
Some experts define burnout as “a mismatch between demands and resources.” The conundrum surely sounds familiar to many attorneys. With too little time and training, zero mentorship, and outdated technology they’re expected to work miracles.
You already know the situation isn’t sustainable. But is there a way out without making a drastic career change?
Sometimes — but frankly it depends on who makes decisions and how reasonable they are. Some managers can be swayed by a clear argument about the benefits of investing adequate resources in their lawyers. This can give you sufficient time to address your clients’ needs and the right legal technology to manage your practice, like modern case management software.
When that’s not the case, you might be able to invest in yourself, by personally getting yourself the tools you need. Or you might find that you’re in a dead-end job, and can move toward a situation that gives you what you need.
What to do: Take the initiative to find a mentor. Get the right case management software to guide your workflow and manage your information. Virtual receptionists can economically help you cover your phone needs.
7. Learn to say, “No.”
Burnout is particularly prevalent among those in ‘helping professions.’ Without conscious effort, helpers’ boundaries quickly erode until they’re trying to be everything to everyone.
Attorneys may find their boundaries wavering when it comes to their clients or their colleagues. Often we’re trained to greet any request from managing partners with cheerful agreement. But in the aftermath, we’re so overworked that we risk slipshod results and a boss who is annoyed anyway.
If you feel you’re heading quickly to burnout, you might need to take more drastic measures. Create a ‘no-new-commitment’ span on your calendar. In that time, your job is to say no to every new request for help (as far as is reasonably possible). You might only need a week, after which you can reevaluate and begin saying yes to projects that make sense with your workload.
Additionally, the right case management software can help alleviate your workload. If there’s just too much on your plate, you should be able to assign those extra tasks and assignments to other available members of your team.
What to do: stop the automatic yeses. When asked to take on a task, request an amount of time to think it through first. Once you take stock of your time budget, you can either decline or say yes with greater commitment and follow-through. If saying no is difficult, Lawyerist has put together a list of other ways to graciously yet firmly turn down requests.
8. Care for your body.
You already know you need good sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet. A routine that consistently erodes your sleep and doesn’t allow for exercise will eventually break down your well-being. But regardless of our intellectual grasp of the importance of self-care, most attorneys find themselves prioritizing their work over their physical well-being at some point.
The key is to move away from ideas of perfection and towards doable goals. Attorneys are high-performing people. Often they carry their ambition and drive into all corners of their lives — they want to run marathons, sculpt their body into a mass of muscles, and make organic, paleo haute cuisine each evening.
If that works, excellent. If not, set your sights lower. Focus on enjoyable, playful, and relaxed ways to care for your physical health.
Practice mindfulness and meditation, which not only helps you relax — it can also help reset your core beliefs over time. These beliefs might include that you only have value through work, or that you must always perform perfectly in order to be good enough.
What to do: sleep better by cutting out caffeine in the afternoon and reducing blue light at night. To exercise, find the most fun, pleasant activity you can, regardless of how many calories it burns. This is far more likely to lead to long-term habits and improved health than pushing yourself to do something more intense which you dislike.
9. Regularly consult the experts.
You know the importance of expertise in your own work. Go to medical and mental health experts when it comes to your own well-being. Some bar associations also offer assistance with burnout and mental health issues.
Therapists can help understand the deeper foundations of your problems and suggest remedies that are tailored to your needs.
What to do: give your mental and emotional well-being the same medical attention you give your physical health. Find a therapist who works for you. If you fear you’re facing burnout, you can test yourself with Maslach Burnout Inventory.
10. Commit to the long haul.
Finally, don’t expect to heal burnout in a day. Some with severe burnout may require a long sabbatical before they’re ready to return to work. And even when you’re feeling energized, you need continued commitment to these daily practices of wellbeing.
Most importantly, those suffering from burnout should never internalize the problem as a sign of personal weakness or failures. As the list above shows, it’s a larger issue dealing with the culture of our workplace and the expectations and pressures put on us by a wider society.
Often the ones who suffer burnout are those who have the greatest sensitivities to the needs of others, and most powerful sense of responsibility to improve the lives of those around them. Once burnout is managed, these very same abilities create powerful and inspiring legal careers.