Burnout. you’ve probably heard the term many times, and possibly used it yourself to express boredom, fatigue or annoyance, as in “Not another feature article about incredibly successful lawyers. I’m burnt out on this stuff!” But those casual references fall short of describing the genuine distress that lawyers with burnout experience. It’s a condition that profoundly impacts their professional and personal life.
First, let’s determine what burnout is not. It’s not merely stress, although continuing, unrelieved stress can lead to burnout. It’s not ennui, although people experiencing burnout become disenchanted about work that they once found fulfilling and engaging. And, while an intense workload may be linked to stress, an individual in the extreme stages of burnout stops being productive—they’ve stopped in their tracks. Psychologist, author and speaker Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., recently published a book on the topic titled, Fried: Why You Burnout and How to Revive.
So, how to describe burnout to those who have never experienced it? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as the result of prolonged stress or frustration.” In their book, Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement, authors Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger and Geraldine Richelson describe the condition as “a demon born of the society and times we live in,” adding that burnout “is not a condition that gets better by being ignored. Nor is it any kind of disgrace. On the contrary, it’s a problem born of good intentions.”
What does burnout feel like? While everyone’s symptoms may vary, a common description one might hear is that it is “a feeling that I just don’t feel like I can do what needs doing. My creativity is gone, my energy is gone, and it is a burden to do anything.”
Burnout in the legal profession is greater than that of other professions, and perhaps now more than ever. In 2001, Martin E.P. Seligman and his colleagues Paul R. Verkuil and Terry H. Kang published an article, “Why Lawyers Are Unhappy” in the Deakin Law Review, noting the growing unhappiness of lawyers in the legal profession. They linked it to the competitive nature of the legal system, the high pressure and limited autonomy of new associates, and the essentially pessimistic nature of legal analysis, which centers on identifying and anticipating problems. In her Oct. 25, 2011 USA Today article, “Law Schools Pressed to Tell the Truth on Job Placement, Debt,” Mary Beth Marklein pointed out that a decade later, we are faced with a lackluster economy with fewer job opportunities for new graduates entering the legal profession, often saddled with significant debt. This creates an environment for burnout to flourish. Lawyers feel a lack of control over their careers, whether it’s not working in the area they prefer, having to change geographical locations, or working long hours. On the job, they may experience a lack of communication or effective feedback about the work they do. Fewer opportunities for law firm employment lead more graduates to enter solo practice immediately after law school, and they either have too few clients, or are overwhelmed by demanding and difficult clients. According to author Anthony J. Cedoline in his book, Job Burnout in Public Education: Symptoms, Causes and Survival Skills, the resulting burnout is “a consequence of the perceived disparity between the demands of the job and the resources (both material and emotional) that an employee has available to him or her. When demands in the workplace become unusually high, it becomes increasingly impossible to cope with the stress associated with these working conditions.”
Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” and, with his colleague Gail North, described its general progression as following 12 stages:
- A Compulsion to Prove Oneself
- Working Harder
- Neglecting One’s Needs
- Displacement of Conflicts
- Revision of Values
- Denial of Emerging Problems
- Withdrawal From Social Contacts
- Obvious Behavioral Changes
- Inner Emptiness
- Burnout Syndrome
Since Freudenberger’s 12 stages of burnout can appear abstract, let’s describe the progression.
Nearly every lawyer can recall having just passed the bar exam, beginning their first job and being determined to not only do their very best, but to outshine their peers. There’s no fault in ambition, but when it becomes a grim determination to show everyone around you that you are superlative in every way, the road to burnout begins.
Fueled by high personal expectations, you take on more work, volunteer for projects and dig in. Working toward a goal of being irreplaceable, you insist on handling everything yourself. As you fill your day with work, work and more work, you begin to ignore your basic needs. You skip lunch, cut back on sleep and work weekends.
Soon, you may begin to sense that things aren’t going the way they should, but you don’t recognize that the real problem is your compulsive work habits and growing isolation. You may start to experience physical symptoms of distress, like headaches or sleep disturbance.
If the process continues without interruption, neglect of your personal needs leads to a sense of inner emptiness. While work and achievement were once important goals, people in the extreme stages of burnout can experience depression, as well as physical and emotional collapse.
That progression is intimidating, if not downright grim. But the solution can begin with a three-step process:
- Recognize the situation, and the signs leading up to it.
- Reverse the tide by reducing your stress and seeking support.
- Find resilience by building up your “stress hardiness” by developing physical, emotional and spiritual resources.
Here are some specific ways to increase stress hardiness. One exercise that can be helpful, particularly when you are feeling dissatisfied or frustrated on the job, is to list the things that give meaning to what you do. Write down what attracted you to your current job or profession in the first place. List the things about it that you find fulfilling now. If you are currently at a low point, try to look back on when you first started and consider the big picture (e.g., how your job fits into your community and the world around you). Think about what you want to achieve with it and what you think is important to doing your job well. What gives meaning to your work? Focusing on the positive can help you endure frustration.
This doesn’t mean that stress hardiness is merely endurance. For the second part of this exercise, take a minute or two to vent. This may involve things like inadequacy of resources, lack of recognition or bureaucracy. In addition, list the factors that are causing you difficulty and are likely to cause stress in the future. How does your frustration list compare to your list of positive things about the job? What can you change? Where can you get support? What do you need to accept at this point in time?
Additional ways to avoid burnout include the many commonsense maintenance practices that, sadly, seem to be the first things that fall by the wayside when we are stressed. The short list includes getting enough sleep; eating a mostly balanced diet (allowing for the occasional treat); eating regular meals (coffee does not equal breakfast); and getting regular exercise (a brisk 15-minute walk morning and afternoon meets fitness recommendations).
Keep in touch with friends. Remember that while you can always make new friends, you can’t make old friends. These are the people with whom you share common history and memories. In this respect, technology can be useful by making distance irrelevant.
Schedule vacations in advance. Maintain healthy boundaries between work and home life. Nurture professional relationships. Expand your knowledge base by participating in seminars, workshops and continuing education. Schedule and attend annual checkups with your personal physician, eye doctor and dentist. Try to do something fun every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just something that makes you smile. Nurture a positive attitude. Even though we are issue spotters and problem solvers in our profession, we don’t have to continually maintain legal vigilance. Remember—or discover—the things you are passionate about.
What if you are in the final stages of burnout? You may feel isolated, hopeless and reluctant to talk to colleagues, friends or family members. Keep this in mind: Nearly every state in the United States has some form of Lawyer Assistance Program, ranging from volunteer peer support to programs with counselors on staff. Help for lawyers (1-866-LAW-LAPS) and members of the judiciary (1-800-219-6474) is just a phone call or email (americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance.html) away.
In his Resilience, Motivation and Family Relationships blog post, “Stressed Out or Stressed Hardy? Part 1,” Robert Brooks, Ph.D., stresses that our personal perspective is one of the most important components of stress hardiness, observing, “Why cast this concept of ‘stress hardiness’ in the framework of a mindset? The reason I do so is my strong belief that mindsets can be changed, that they do not have to remain fixed ideas that are cast in stone. I realize that many people have held on to certain self-defeating ideas for years, but with insight, courage and support these ideas can be changed.”
Joan Borysenko includes her own experience with burnout and recovery in her book, Fried, which she compares to the journey in Dante’s Inferno. Your personal experience may not be as dramatic, but her closing comments remind us all that the most difficult journeys frequently offer the greatest rewards: “Revival from burnout is always about the recovery of lost authenticity,” Borysenko said in her book. “It’s waking up to who we really are and realizing that heaven is not a destination, but a state of mind. If being fried can bring us to a point where we reconnect to our own true nature, then it’s worth every moment of separation to rediscover the heaven that has been inside of us all along.”