How did Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, get on the career path that led to being a stress and resilience expert?
The answer is also the title of one of her PowerPoint slides at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives: “I Fought the Law, and the Law Won.” Davis-Laack, who practiced law until 2009, said she missed the following changes in herself—which, as it turns out, are classic warning signs of professional burnout:
- She was chronically exhausted, both physically and emotionally. On Sunday night, she would stare at the clock, hoping to freeze time, she recalled—and she would come to work the next day still feeling exhausted rather than recharged. Instead of hopping out of bed ready to face a new day and new work week, she said, “it was a slow drop and thud.”
- She became more cynical and disengaged, and found herself inwardly rolling her eyes over whether certain meetings, conferences, and routine tasks were really necessary. This is not a good way to think if your line of work involves helping people with their problems, she noted—and even a lawyer who is not clinically depressed may still feel “checked out” in this way.
- Her sense of confidence was diminishing, and she could no longer see a path for herself in the legal profession.
There were physical symptoms as well, she added: She started to have panic attacks and went to the emergency room twice for stomach pains that turned out to be caused by anxiety. Also, while she was in the midst of a big project, the “endorphin pipeline” would keep her going—but once the project ended, she was often beset with small but annoying illnesses like a cold or a sore throat.
An incident in her personal life illustrates another classic warning sign of impending burnout: catastrophic thinking in which “every curveball is a major crisis.” Once, she recalled, while on a short drive for a visit, her mother asked her to stop and make a quick store trip. “It was a level one ask,” Davis-Laack recalled, “and I had a level 10 response.” Both she and her mother were stunned when she blew up regarding how difficult everything was and how she didn’t need one more task.
Eventually, Davis-Laack founded the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, LLC. Short of leaving the legal profession or the bar association profession, what can someone do if they see signs of burnout, what should their employer do—and what is the scope of the problem?