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January 22, 2023 Feature

Intervening Upstream: Why Leaders Hold the Key to Preventing Burnout on Their Teams

Kendra Brodin

Burnout is a hot topic right now. Every day, new books on “how to prevent burnout” hit the shelves and new articles fill our email inboxes, social media streams, and web searches. As a lawyer well-being consultant and speaker, I’ve been booked solid fulfilling client speaking invitations to teach the individuals on their teams how to manage their own stress and deal with their own burnout.

Here is the problem: preventing burnout is a two-way street. Yes, individuals have the responsibility to learn and use techniques to manage their stress, obligations, well-being, and mental health. But firms and legal organizations, no matter what the size, also bear responsibility for creating systems and workplaces that do not create scenarios where burnout is all but inevitable.

As Bishop Desmon Tutu once said, “‘There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

It’s time to look at how we lead our teams, quit pulling people out of the river, and start going upstream to figure out why people keep falling into the river of burnout.

What Is Burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) first designated burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to WHO, it is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Notice that the WHO was not putting the responsibility for curing burnout on individuals. Rather, it indicated that chronic workplace stressors should be “successfully managed” by both the individual and the organization or occupation.

Why Burnout Matters to Your Organization

Burnout doesn’t only negatively impact the individuals who suffer from it. Firms and organizations also suffer as a result of a burned-out workforce. Even though burnout impacts both the individual and the employer, it is common to treat only the individual. Burnout in the workplace increases:

  • Mistakes and errors that lead to ethics violation and malpractice
  • Attrition that makes it difficult to confidently staff matters
  • Expenses related to recruiting, hiring, and training employees to replace those who have left, which is particularly challenging in this white-hot talent market
  • Absenteeism and “presenteeism” (when people are technically “on the clock” but not actually working or focused)
  • Client dissatisfaction as clients receive lower quality client service and interaction with burned out lawyers

What Leaders Get Wrong

In her book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience, Paula Davis of the Stress and Resilience Institute asserts that “leaders . . . need to be educated about burnout, its causes, and its symptoms. Leaders may unintentionally make burnout worse by dismissing it or thinking it’s the same as stress. Telling people to “take Friday off” or “take a vacation” will not alleviate burnout.” In fact, research by Zirui Song and Katherin Baicker shows that using individualistic, “Band-Aid”solutions to a workplace phenomenon like burnout may be doing more harm than good.

As leaders, we must move beyond the false narrative that individual workers’ weaknesses are the sole factor causing burnout and take ownership for how their work environments and cultures contribute to, if not cause, the burnout on our teams. As psychologist Justin Henderson said, “Burnout, then, is an outcome of an interaction between burnout producing environmental factors and individually susceptible workers.”

Given that interaction, leaders need to accept the three decades of burnout research that consistently shows that a key culprit in the creation of burnout is the work environment. That also means that the greatest opportunity for change also lies with the organization and you as a leader, not the individual.

Workplace Factors Causing Burnout

According to Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, two leading burnout researchers, it is the relationship between people and their occupation or job that can raise the risk of burnout.

Maslach and Leiter found that the primary causes of burnout are:

  • High workload and work pressure (especially when coupled with inadequate resources)
  • Lack of autonomy (having little choice or say in how and when work tasks are performed)
  • Lack of recognition and rewards (not receiving feedback or appreciation)
  • Poor relationships (lack of belonging or community)
  • Lack of fairness (favoritism, seemingly arbitrary decision-making, and lack of transparency)
  • Values mismatch (misalignment between individual and organizational values)

A review of these six primary causes of burnout shows why organizations must take responsibility for the ways in which their systems, processes, cultures, messaging, and expectations contribute to these causes of burnout. Well-being plans that exclusively suggest strategies and techniques that put sole responsibility on individuals to prevent and cure from their own stress and burnout are destined to fail.

According to burnout expert Jennifer Moss in her 2021 book, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Fix It:

If you want to address the burnout problem, the first step is repeating and internalizing this mantra: Burnout is about your organization, not your people. Yoga, vacation time, wellness tech, and meditation apps can help people feel optimized, healthier. But when it comes to preventing burnout, suggesting that these tools are the cure is dangerous.

What Firm Leaders Can Do to Combat Burnout

Providing competitive compensation, physical safety, and access to IT, HR, and other tools and resources are simply the basics that organizations must offer. Our teams need and deserve much more to prevent overwhelming stress and burnout.

When you are hearing complaints of stress and burnout, it’s not enough to hope an engaging speaker, an all-attorney retreat, or hosting 15-minute chair massages will solve the problem. Rather, firm leaders need to look in the mirror and ask “How can we change? How can we help? How can we create a workplace where our people aren’t burning out?”

Create Psychological Safety

Without psychological safety, it’s not possible to create a workplace environment that promotes well-being and prevents burnout.

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defined it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” The preeminent organizational psychologist, William Kahn, said that psychological safety is about “daring to engage oneself without fear of negative consequences concerning neither one’s self-image, status, or career.”

With psychological safety, an individual can respectfully disagree, be authentic, voice concerns, and raise questions without worrying that they will be singled out, embarrassed, gossiped about, or otherwise penalized.

As a leader in your organization, you can help create psychological safety by:

  • Modeling behaviors that create psychological safety for all employees
  • Calling out violations and addressing them consistently
  • Asking for opinions, contributions, and feedback from everyone on the team
  • Making themselves available, accessible, and welcoming
  • Being as transparent and forthcoming as possible; giving regular updates and, where possible, the rationale behind decisions
  • Demonstrating active and curious listening, asking follow-up questions, and remaining nondefensive
  • Showing a personal side, sharing examples of challenges and strategies for success, and validating that it is “okay” and “normal” to have struggles

Provide Flexibility and Autonomy Where Possible

Even though many firms were forced to do this post-pandemic with new hybrid work structures, it’s important to grant as much flexibility as possible so that your team members experience a sense of autonomy. As long as the work completed is satisfactory to the firm and the client, firms can create flexibility and autonomy by letting team members decide when, where, and how to get work done.

Of course, this isn’t always possible, but try to think creatively about where there are opportunities to give more autonomy instead of simply defaulting to “we’ve always done it that way” to defend why flexibility or greater autonomy can’t be granted. The trade-off in preventing burnout may make evolving your work structures worth it.

Workload and Balanced Resources

This may be the most challenging area for many legal organizations and for the profession to change. Solving the workload puzzle is complex and multifaceted, but here are some areas to consider as a leader:

  • Staff projects and roles appropriately rather than expecting your team members to contribute more than one person can or to “do the jobs of two people.”
  • Reconsider time-wasters like meetings with no clear purpose or no articulated agendas. There are only so many hours in the day. Don’t ask your team to put in extra hours because you didn’t take the time necessary to create a tight agenda for an efficient and purposeful meeting.
  • Leverage the resources in your firm appropriately. Do some people have too much work while others have too little? Make use of work allocation tools and creative ideas about how tasks can be completed using various existing, but underutilized, resources.
  • Give clear instructions at the outset of projects and constructive feedback after project completion to avoid wasting time. Clear instructions prevent needless or off-point work. Constructive feedback helps clarify what went well and should be repeated on future projects as well as what should be done differently.
  • Provide the tools, training, and resources needed so that people can do their best work. Davis suggests “burnout is caused by an imbalance between your job demands and job resources, and it’s more likely to occur when job demands outweigh job resources.”

Celebrate Wins Together, and Show Gratitude

It may seem like a small thing, but feeling undervalued and underappreciated is a significant driver of burnout. It’s worth taking time to celebrate together and show gratitude for the efforts of others.

  • Create a firm-wide newsletter that celebrates team wins as well as outstanding collaboration and team efforts.
  • Send an email of thanks to someone who helped you in some way, whether that’s another attorney, a business professional, or a paralegal.
  • On your project teams or within practice groups, celebrate wins, achievements, goals met, and other milestones. If it’s possible to do the celebration in person, all the better.

In showing appreciation to others, you can have a ripple effect on your firm. A new study by Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleagues found that expressing gratitude not only improves one-on-one relationships, but expressions of thanks can bring entire groups together. When people simply witness an act of gratitude, they are inspired to help others on their team and connect with others.

Be careful not to dismiss this strategy as insignificant or trite. Building a culture of appreciation and respect for the contributions of others can prevent burnout since feeling underappreciated is a leading cause of burnout. You can build your team’s resilience, confidence, and engagement by regularly acknowledging and thanking people for their efforts.

Talk about Meaning, Purpose, and Impact

Even though it’s been shown that those who find purpose, meaning, and values alignment in the workplace experience less burnout, law firms and legal organizations struggle to talk about these topics.

A recent survey by Thomson Reuters found that “purpose is high on the agenda of many law firms this year.” Leaders may find different ways to experience meaning and purpose in their work, but no matter how they personally find meaning, it is critical that they find ways to talk about it with their teams. Do you find meaning in helping your clients succeed? Do you find meaning in supporting others in resolving disputes in an orderly and fair way? Do you serve your clients and society by helping your client’s end-user, like a hospital system, or do you support clients directly in your work?

However you find meaning in your work, talk about it. Discuss how meaning helps support your well-being and motivation. This gives others permission to do the same and helps them find meaning and impact in their work.

Be a Good Role Model, and Take Care of Yourself

  1. Don’t create a culture of “do what I say, not what I do.” Build your own resilience skills and prevent burnout for yourself so that you can enjoy your life and practice while also supporting others.
  2. Take care of your physical well-being. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, fuel your body with nutritious food, and move regularly. Your physical health is the foundation for everything else.
  3. Create time off for yourself. You can’t work 24/7/365. Create time in your schedule for down-time. Put downtime on your calendar and honor it like you would a client meeting. Take mini-breaks during the day, days off during the month, and time away throughout the year. You need time to rest and recharge.
  4. Become more optimistic. This doesn’t mean you have on “rose-colored glasses,” but try to set aside the chronic cynicism and catastrophizing that lawyers are prone to do and believe that even when things are challenging, those struggles are temporary and things can always change for the better.
  5. Build a growth mindset. Believe that you can always learn and grow (growth mindset). Even when you can’t do something today, it just means you can’t do it “yet.” Check out Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, for a deeper dive.
  6. Practice self-compassion and patience. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t nudging yourself and others to improve or letting things slide. It simply means that you are patient and compassionate with yourself and others when things inevitably don’t go according to plan despite best efforts.
  7. Spend time with others and ask for help. Don’t isolate yourself. Talk with others, support each other, and learn that you aren’t alone. And when you need help, practice vulnerability and ask for it, either from those who care about you or from a trained professional.
  8. Celebrate your wins. Just as we talked about celebrating team wins, celebrate your own wins as well. Did you actually respect your scheduled downtime this week? Did you move your body three times like you promised yourself you would? Did you practice self-regulation and self-compassion skills during a tough situation? Whatever it was, take note and give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it as you take care of yourself and protect yourself against burnout!

Conclusion

Burnout is a shared responsibility. Both firm leaders and individuals play a role in preventing and managing burnout. When an individual is teetering on burnout, it only adds insult to injury if you as their leader imply that they created their own challenges by not meditating enough or not setting strong enough boundaries. At best, the “it’s your problem to solve” messaging is tone-deaf. At worst, it creates resentment, frustration, and, ultimately, disengagement and attrition.

As a leader in your firm and on your team, you have the opportunity to boldly, vulnerably, and proactively build an environment, culture, and processes that support well-being and decrease burnout on your teams, and you should start now.

When it comes to burnout, it’s time for firms, leaders, and the legal profession to focus their energies upstream, preventing people from falling in the river. Doing so will help create healthier individuals, teams, organizations, and, ultimately, a healthier legal profession.

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Kendra Brodin

EsquireWell

Kendra Brodin, MSW, ESQ., is founder & CEO of EsquireWell, a lawyer well-being and professional development consulting, training, and coaching company, and is a member of the ABA Law Practice Division Well-Being Committee.