Anne Chambers, LCSW
dictionary defines burnout as the exhaustion of physical or emotional
strength or motivation, usually as the result of prolonged stress or
frustration. Exhaustion tops the list of symptoms of burnout and
appears to be a hallmark feature. Bateson and Hart describe burnout as complete
mental or emotional fatigue lasting weeks at a time, generally as a result of
exposure to stress that is pervasive, complete and prolonged. Common
symptoms include exhaustion, fatigue, detachment, boredom, cynicism, sadness,
annoyance or irritability. Attorneys facing burnout often feel drained,
as if they have nothing left to give, feel a lack of achievement, purpose and
sense of hope. Some experience distrust or a sense of impending failure.
Burnout is a disillusioning experience.
results of burnout can include being less efficient, wasting time,
procrastinating and coming up with extra errands during the day. The quantity
and quality of work may decline. Doing the minimum can become a challenge
and what was easy before now seems difficult. Once the cycle of burnout begins,
the attorney may start a project expecting failure, find it hard to invest much
effort, and ultimately receive negative feedback. Workaholic tendencies,
burnout and depression can fuel each other.
attorneys experiencing burnout feel the urge to make radical changes.
Usually this involves urges to quit abruptly or to leave the profession
altogether with or without a backup plan. Two poles of burnout range from
adopting a robotic, detached, automatic work style to the rescuing,
overinvolved super-helper attorney who has worn out. Some feel that they
are unimportant; others irreplaceable, and see every task as critical and
burnout is more advanced, the attorney's usual demeanor may harden. The lawyer
may come across as jaded, detached or cynical. Clearly it is time to
rejuvenate. Some display oddly placed bits of anger, sigh, have morning
inertia, cyber slack or take on extra errands during the workday to avoid
other, more pressing things. There can be lethargy, perfunctory or inconsistent
performance, vigorous cynicism, and disparagement. Left unattended, burnout can
contribute to challenges to ethical duties, particularly communication and
that Raise the Risk of Burnout
situational and personality factors can increase susceptibility to burnout.
Environmental contributors include competition, downsizing, being in an
extremely stressful situation for a long time, time pressures, long workdays,
the adversarial nature of the court process, work overload, disparity between
demands and resources, the need to keep up with variety of topics, feeling
inadequate, unimportant or underappreciated, and struggling to balance
personal/professional obligations. When demands on an attorney seem too high
for too long, coping skills can become overloaded.
are part of a very hard working profession, with 1/3 of attorneys working an
estimated 50 or more hours a week. The legal profession tends to attract
persons with perfectionism or workaholic traits. Personality factors that
that increase susceptibility include a high need for control, over dedication,
perfectionism and workaholic tendencies. The constant quest for perfection can
lead to dissatisfaction in the long term. Others at higher risk are
idealists, those with unrealistic expectations or low coping abilities. Very
empathic attorneys who pour high levels of emotional energy into their work can
become overwhelmed over time. Attorneys who have limited social support
or a personal history of trauma may be at greater risk of burnout.
Additional risk factors are the toll of highly complex, emotionally charged
cases over time. Those working in family and criminal law may find their risk
is greater as well.
that Protect Against Burnout
factors that protect against burnout include the use of humor, getting regular
exercise, enough sleep, keeping in touch with friends, having hobbies and
taking planned vacations. At work, it is helpful to seek perspective by
recognizing when you have done a good job and identifying what you can control.
If you have coworkers, foster a healthy a team environment. Having one can help
protect against burnout. Having support staff can make a big difference.
If you are a solo practitioner and are consistently low on resources, assess
your hiring needs. If you hire support staff, it is helpful to hire around
common work values that are important to you.
Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma
by any other name is still miserable. Burnout has sometimes been referred to as
compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. Symptoms of vicarious trauma include
intrusive symptoms, avoidance symptoms and arousal symptoms. Avoidance symptoms
can include trying to avoid hearing or witnessing traumatic client information,
reducing self-care activities, loss of energy, loss of hope, sense of dread
working with certain clients, isolation, depression, loss of enjoyment in
activities, engaging in secretive self-medication or addiction. Arousal
symptoms include increased anxiety, anger, frustration, difficulty
concentrating, sleep disturbance, changes in weight or appetite and somatic
symptoms. Intrusive symptoms can include upsetting thoughts, images, and dreams
associated with a client's experiences, an obsessive or compulsive desire to
help certain clients or having client/work issues encroaching upon personal
time, the inability to let go of work-related matters, feeling an over-inflated
sense of power or importance, feelings of inadequacy or ineffectiveness, an
inappropriate sense of entitlement, increased perception of danger and
perceiving the world in terms of victims and perpetrators ("us versus
is not a mental health diagnosis. Some of the symptoms of burnout can
overlap with signs of depression like sadness, detachment, pessimism and
irritability. Attorneys who suspect they are facing both burnout and
depression may benefit from additional assistance.
you are experiencing burnout, there are many ways to recover. Recognize that
you are experiencing burnout, identify signs that led to it, and then consider
ways to resolve it. Think about what you really enjoy, what gives you
meaning in your work and personal life, what will help you recharge, and focus
on those items. Plan to do these things very soon. While doing them, note you
are doing this. Seek support. Consider what you can do to reduce your overall
stress level and what you need to accept as is for now. Identify factors that
are causing you stress right now and what is likely to cause it in the future.
strategies to recover include using humor, setting realistic goals, focusing on
fitness, participating in creative non-work activities and taking time away
including mini breaks and regular vacations. Mergendahl recommends
raising your awareness by considering some questions about priorities. Examples
include considering whether or not this is a life or death situation, whether
or not you should delegate, and what if anything your client will lose if this
is not finished today. Crawford and Querin suggest considering the meaning of
your work. Consider what drew you to the law, how your job fits into your
community and the larger world around you.
notes that it's important to differentiate your problems from your client's
troubles. If you feel your client's troubles have become yours too, get
support. Consider if you are an introverted or extroverted person.
Introverts can benefit from taking time alone, away from the hustle and
bustle. Extroverts can benefit from frequent physical activities and
opportunities to interact with friends and family.
you are considering making radical or drastic changes, slow down. Take some
time think it over carefully. Consider minor changes before making any major
moves. Evaluate whether your problems relate to your particular job or certain
circumstances. If the problems are internally driven, changing your environment
won't solve them in the long run. Use office support, try to reduce your
level of perfectionism and reevaluate your expectations. Slow down or interrupt
yourself if ruminating on negative thoughts.
some boundaries. Decide when you will stop lawyering for the day. Will it
be when you lock the office door, turn into your driveway, hug your loved ones,
or turn off your cell phone? Legal work involves working with feelings, not
just intellect. Working with emotions can exact a price. The time you
take to refresh and renew will be time well spent.
professional, confidential assistance in coping with burnout, contact MOLAP at
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