Volume 18, Number 2
March 2001

Practice Management

Burnout

Spotting It, Stopping It

By Phillip M. Perry

Today, faced with the need to wring greater profits from fewer resources, law firms are demanding better performance from their personnel. But there’s danger in this mad whirl toward the high-adrenaline levels of productivity. Stress has become an occupational issue that is as costly as it is pervasive. Pressured staff members respond in ways that can erode profitability. Personnel are not the only ones who suffer. Clients, ignored or even mistreated by stressed-out staff, start dreaming of greener pastures at other law firms.

"Stress creates a major negative impact on a law firm’s creativity, innovation, and profit," says Dr. Richard Hagberg, president of Hagberg Consulting Group. "But many lawyers believe that if they pour on the pressure, people perform better. In reality, stressed-out staff members patch together short-term fixes to problems, while costly, deep-rooted issues remain unaddressed and take their toll on the bottom line."Many faces of stress. Overwork is not the only source of stress in law firms. A plethora of lawyers puts downward pressure on fees and upward pressure on performance as everyone struggles to stay afloat. In addition, most law is still practiced under an adversarial model that tends to carry over from the courtroom into the work environment, where the distinctions among partners, associates, and staff easily deteriorate from a class system into a pecking order.

Intertwined throughout this environment are the personalities of the individuals who become lawyers. "The person who goes into law tends to be competitive," says Dr. Rodney Lowman of the California School of Professional Psychology. "People who are attracted to law are similar to those who go into business. While law and business have a competitive environment in common, the business world’s more quantitative side encourages everyone to play by a restricted set of rules. Law, in contrast, is conducted in an intensely verbal and conflictual paradigm of ‘us versus them.’"

Most often, says Dr. Lowman, stressors fall into one of the following three categories: role overload (too much to do and too little time in which to do it), role conflict (being pulled in two or more different directions), and role ambiguity (a staff member who does not have a clearly defined job).Spotting the signs. The following are common signs that the general stress level is on the rise: absenteeism is increasing; employees seem to need more vacation time; the staff becomes more irritable and difficult to get along with; there is a general rise in comments such as "Gosh, we are stressed out around here"; people exhibit confusion and make mistakes at tasks they usually perform well; and you are feeling stress.

Not everyone responds to stress in the same way. The trick is to get to know how different individuals on your staff prefer to respond to stress. Additionally, some individuals serve as "leading indicators" of office stress. They seem to be the first to react to a general rise in stress levels. When you see these individuals exhibiting their preferred stress reactions, watch to see if other people follow suit.

In general, to find out what specific stressors are active in your law firm, encourage people to speak up when they feel as though they are being overloaded with work or when they are getting mixed signals about work roles. But you can do even better, according to Dr. Peter Chang of the California School of Professional Psychology. He suggests scheduling regular meetings during which the staff can discuss what they like and don’t like about their work environment.Letting off steam. Sounds like a plan. But how do you keep these meetings from deteriorating into gripe sessions? Chang suggests that prior to each meeting, hand out a questionnaire that asks each participant to describe five tasks they perform most often, five things they like the best about their work, and five things they like the least. A questionnaire, says Chang, saves time by keeping the forthcoming meeting focused on work-related issues in a productive manner. "It also alerts the staff that the firm is interested in this topic and gets everyone to start some real thinking before the meeting." Keep the questionnaire simple.

At the meeting, emphasize the cooperative effort involved by arranging the desks in a circle if possible or using a conference table. Once the meeting is over, don’t let the issues drop. "Follow up on the individual requests and suggestions," says Chang. "Ideally, you should hold a loosely structured initial meeting where everyone says what is on their mind. Then, for efficiency’s sake, there ought to be a subsequent meeting that is action focused. This is where you provide responses to specific suggestions. List which recommendations seem reasonable and which ones are out of the question."A positive workplace. "Groups of staff members can create positive or negative cultures," says Dr. David C. Moons of Saint Louis University. "When the language used by your staff is positive, affirmative thinking becomes contagious." Moon suggests encouraging positive language when people communicate with one another. Recommend the empowering "I will" rather than the passive "I should." If someone makes a statement such as, "I don’t have enough time to...," persuade him to change his goal, so that he can state, "I have just enough time to...." Finally, influence your staff to avoid negative self-talk. "Thinking positively is infectious," says Moons. "Get people to think and talk positively about their work settings."

Just as sports figures achieve new goals by visualizing and using positive self-talk, your staff can do the same. "Give them tools just as an athlete gets tools to break a home run record," says Moons. Tell them, "Around here we want you to be 100 percent at your best and be positive about your work situation. What kind of things can we do to help you keep a positive work culture?"A feeling of control. When individuals have a voice in how they cope with challenging tasks, their stress levels decrease, according to Hagberg. The more experience individuals have, the more aspects of their work they should be able to control. Offer guidance in areas such as planning work schedules for completing key tasks, obtaining the resources needed to complete projects, and interacting with clients in better ways.

Staff members will make better decisions and feel more in control of their destinies if they understand how their actions support the overall law firm mission. Of course, this presupposes that you have developed clear goals for your law firm. "The staff experiences much higher stress if leaders are jerking around the organization with goals that are either too numerous or ill defined," warns Hagberg.

Individuals feel less stress if they have the power to manage the time they spend on professional and personal life. "People are having difficulty balancing their family and work lives," says Paul Gibson, a lawyer and human resources analyst at CCH Human Resources Group in Chicago. "Our surveys show that a paid leave bank is the most successful way to reduce the stress that results when people have too few hours to do too many tasks." A "paid leave bank" system lumps all time off—vacation, sick, and personal—into one bank that the individual can use as appropriate. This reduces stress because it allows the individual to schedule time as needed. It benefits the employer as well. The person who needs to take care of a family task can now let the firm know about a necessary absence well in advance. This avoids the last-minute scrambling—and increased staff stress level—that occurs when people call in sick. Simple things such as the ability to take breaks freely, augment desk lighting, and select one’s own work apparel also can contribute to an individual’s sense of flexibility.

Phillip M. Perry is a New York-based, award-winning freelance writer who frequently writes on legal issues.

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 44 of Law Practice Management, October 2000 (26:7).

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