- Individuals can’t be expected to prevent burnout caused by their firms. Here’s how to prevent it.
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 also bear responsibility for creating systems and workplaces that do not create scenarios where burnout is all but inevitable.
As Bishop Desmond 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 our firms and organizations, quit pulling people out of the river, and start going upstream to figure out why people keep falling into the river of 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:
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.
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:
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.
Leaders 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, it is time for leaders 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, not the individual.
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:
A review of these six primary causes of burnout shows why organizations must take responsibility for how 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.”
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, firms 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?”
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.
Leaders at all levels can help create psychological safety by:
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 leaders can 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.
This may be the most challenging area for many legal organizations and for the profession to change. Solving the workload puzzle is complex and multi-faceted, but here are some areas to consider:
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.
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.
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.
Burnout is a shared responsibility. Both organizations and individuals play a role in preventing and managing burnout. When an individual is teetering on burnout, it only adds insult to injury by implying that they created their own challenges by not meditating enough and 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.
Leaders in firms and organizations have the opportunity to boldly, vulnerably, and proactively build environments, cultures, and processes that support well-being and decrease burnout on their teams, and they should start now.
When it comes to burnout, it’s time for firms, legal organizations, 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.