Research from the Johns Hopkins University,1 which looks at more than 100 different occupations, found that lawyers lead the way with more cases of depression. The American Bar Association also has estimated that between 15% and 20% of American lawyers suffer from alcoholism and substance abuse,2 too. The profession, which is particularly time consuming for both students and those practicing it professionally, can be absolutely tiring and life consuming, meaning it’s important to take breaks from time to time.
Lawyer burnout, the term used to describe the stress, difficulty, and fatigue that can affect attorneys, is hardly new. Since the profession began, professional lawyers have struggled to maintain a work/life balance―but luckily, there are ways burnout can be recognized and prevented.
Recognizing Lawyer Burnout
Recognizing that you suffer from lawyer burnout―or if someone you work with or care about is being affected by it―is a matter of knowing the symptoms. Although it is not an officially recognized condition, it is characterized by a number of symptoms that are directly related to hard work in this profession.
The first and most obvious symptom is fatigue. This is when somebody finds it difficult to get their work done or even go about their normal daily business, no matter how much sleep they might have had. This is a total exhaustion that can’t be solved by a long sleep, or even a couple of days off work.
As well as fatigue, a sufferer will become more cynical and negative about their life. This is of course a classic symptom of depression, which is essentially what a sufferer of lawyer burnout experiences. Someone with this immense feeling of dread will be disengaged in their life and pay less attention to the people they love.
You also should look for a lack of attention and ability to stay focused on important things and a general feeling that progress is not being made in their life.
The primary thing to remember when avoiding burnout is that you must manage your energy correctly. This means knowing when you need to rest and when you need to work. This goes beyond just having a good night’s sleep, too. Every 90 minutes of work should be followed by a small period of rest―whether it’s having a cup of tea or having a quick nap.
It’s also necessary to add meaning to your work. If you are working day in day out and feel like you have no real goal, it’s not unlikely that you’re going to start questioning why you do the work you do. Find a goal and your work becomes more meaningful.
By taking these simple steps, you can make yourself more productive and happy about your work. You can also help a relative, friend, or colleague avoid a serious episode of depression.
1. W.W. Eaton, Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J. Occupational Med. No.11 (1990), at 1079–87.
2. D. Jones, Career Killers, in B.P. Crowley & M.L. Winick (eds.), A Guide to the Basic Law Practice (Alliance Press 2001), at 180–97.