Recognizing and Recovering from Burnout
by Anne Chambers, LCSW
Webster's 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
Results of Burnout
The 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.
Many 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 delegation impossible.
When 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 diligence.
Factors that Raise the Risk of Burnout
Environmental, 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
Attorneys 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.
Factors that Protect Against Burnout
Some 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.
Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma
Burnout 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
Burnout is not a mental health diagnosis. Some of
the symptoms of burnout can overlap with signs of of depression like sadness, detachment, pessimism and irritability. Attorneys
who suspect they are facing both burnout and depression may benefit
from additional assistance.
Recovering from Burnout
If 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.
Other 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.
Blackford 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
If 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.
Reestablish 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.
For professional, confidential assistance in coping with
burnout, contact MOLAP at 1-800-688-7859.
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