Vol. 43, No. 2

Stress and resilience expert: Avoiding work-related burnout takes team effort

By Marilyn Cavicchia

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

What causes burnout?

Along with the demands to be available 24/7, legal practice is now much more complex and specialized, Davis-Laack said, at a time when there’s also been a marked decrease in mentoring opportunities and interpersonal interaction at many law firms. The result is that many lawyers make careless errors that may lead to malpractice claims because they “are sort of winging it a little bit,” she believes, “and underlying all of this is just a ton of stress.”

It’s a simple equation, Davis-Laack said: Many lawyers—and the rest of us, too—have too many job demands (the things that take our time and energy) and too few job resources (the things that help replenish us emotionally and physically). Often, that leads to burnout.

And burnout typically doesn’t go away on its own, Davis-Laack said; if left unchecked, it will progress to breakdown (whether physical, emotional, or both). The quality that helps someone stay in what Davis-Laack called the “stress sweet spot”—where we are not bored but also not burning out—is resilience, she said.

It’s tempting for an employer to think that resilience—the ability to adapt and bounce back from stress and change—is a personal trait that individuals must develop on their own, but Davis-Laack believes it takes a partnership between people and organizations.

Organizations should make the first move, she added, by focusing on their practices and how they can dial back some demands and build in some additional resources. What resources, exactly? Davis-Laack said that the following have consistently been shown to help decrease work-related stress and increase resilience:

  • autonomy, rather than being micromanaged;
  • high-quality relationships and a feeling of connection;
  • competence, as in learning and advancing rather than being stagnant;
  • feedback that is frequent and meaningful; and
  • recognition, which Davis-Laack said is “huge,” especially when done publicly.

Job demands that Davis-Laack said create unnecessary stress and should be reduced include:

  • role ambiguity, meaning that it’s not clear what one’s job responsibilities actually are;
  • role conflict, when two employees are in a situation where they almost inevitably cross wires; and
  • unfairness (real or perceived), which Davis-Laack said is an especially potent “burnout accelerant.”

Building resilience in yourself and others

As for how to build personal resilience, Davis-Laack stressed the importance of being proactive in maintaining relationships and connection by watching how we communicate with those around us. Don’t interrupt, she advised, do say thank you—and “stop giving a feedback sandwich.”

Somewhere along the line, she explained, many of us were taught to put a negative comment between two positive ones. The problem, she said, is that people are wired to focus on just one aspect—and most often, it will be the negative. Instead, she suggested, deliver the negative feedback via a “two-way, learning conversation” and the positive (in a separate discussion) in “ultra-clear bursts of recognition and praise”—again, preferably in public.

Both at work and at home, she advised, pay close attention to how you respond when someone shares good news. By training and inclination, she said, many lawyers’ first response is to question the good news and look for problems: “Are you sure about that?” “You got 98 percent on that test—what about the other 2 percent?” Davis-Laack herself did something like this, she recalled: When a friend who works at Harvard got something published by Stanford, one of the first things she said was to ask why Harvard didn’t publish it.

If you don’t wholeheartedly congratulate someone on their good news, Davis-Laack said, it won’t take long before you’re off their list of people to tell—and once you’re off, it’s very hard to get back on, even if you apologize profusely (as Davis-Laack did to her friend).

What’s more, she said, “They will stop sharing their bad news with you, too”—and a bar association where staff or members withhold bad news could be a disaster waiting to happen.