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Law Practice Today

June 2024

How Organizations Play an Integral Role in Preventing Burnout

Danielle Marie Hall

Summary 

  • Burnout is defined as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
  • Preventing burnout in a team requires an initiative-taking management strategy that fosters a culture that promotes a healthy work environment and supports employee well-being.
How Organizations Play an Integral Role in Preventing Burnout
iStock.com/Liudmila Chernetska

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We have all heard the saying time and time again that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. After all, there is a reason why, on a flight, we are instructed that in case of an emergency, we should first put on our own oxygen mask before assisting someone else.

In a well-being context, the concept of taking care of one’s own self also makes some sense. For instance, I need to practice self-care to enhance my own well-being. But the truth of the matter is that individual self-care practices are only part of the equation. Our external and macro environments may not only be the sources of our stress but can also be an enabler or obstacle to pursuing our well-being. Ultimately, well-being is a collective responsibility.

As a profession, we all have a role to play in creating environments that allow individuals to thrive in the practice of law. In 2017, this was clearly identified by the National Task Force for Lawyer Well-Being, as well as identified in its report. The context in which we live and work—such as our organizational and professional cultures—plays a powerful role in helping or harming individual well-being. And when it comes to something like burnout, this statement could not be more true.

Burnout is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is often characterized by three dimensions, according to the World Health Organization. Those dimensions include:

  • 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.

While external factors can contribute to burnout, its key indicator is that it is directly tied to work. Burnout worsens at work or in response to work, leaves people feeling overwhelmed, and also leads to disengagement. Having overwhelmed and disengaged employees means there could not only be negative impacts on the organization, such as decreased productivity or high turnover rates, but in the context of the legal profession, this could also mean a negative impact on clients or the legal system as a whole. 

And let’s be frank: no leader should overlook that an employee is being so negatively impacted as a direct result of the job that it is impacting their mental health in a negative manner. When burnout is overlooked, that employee may also leave their job. This can cause a domino effect for other employees. If one employee is burned out, the chance that another employee is also feeling the same way is high.

Employee burnout can occur in any organization, whether it is a firm, legal department, an agency, or corporation, or even a court. While there are a variety of risk factors for burnout, many can be tied directly to the culture of the organization, which is why no entity is immune. Work cultures that include excessive workloads, scarce resources, high-conflict teams, a lack of clarity in roles, constantly changing expectations, a lack of recognition, and ineffective or poor management can all contribute to burnout.

Preventing burnout in a team requires a proactive management strategy aimed at fostering a culture that promotes a healthy work environment and supports employee well-being. This is more than just saying you support the well-being of your employees, and it also requires more than planning the next luncheon or implementing casual Fridays. Taking proactive steps at preventing burnout might just require you to pull back the curtains on the organization and ask the tough questions—such as what is our organizational culture, what would we like our culture to be, and do our actions display the culture we want?

Culture sets the tone, attitudes, and expectations in the organization. For instance, establishing a positive work culture ultimately creates an environment where employees feel engaged, motivated, and supported, leading to lower burnout rates and higher job satisfaction. Positive work culture promotes a supportive environment where employees feel valued and respected. It also encourages open communication, which allows employees to express their concerns, share feedback, and seek help when needed. Positive work cultures will impact your overall employee well-being way more than the next potluck that is scheduled. Don’t get me wrong, those types of events can contribute to employees feeling appreciated and valued, but if this is the only positive part of your culture, then it may not be doing what you think it is.

When laying the foundations for a culture that promotes well-being and reduces the risk of burnout; organizations can start by evaluating their relationships, communication, appreciation and recognition, employee development, inclusivity, and well-being-related policies. For instance, an organization should ask:

  • Does our organization have emphasis on people or productivity?
  • Do we offer resources such as training, tools, and support systems to help employees manage their workload efficiently?
  • Are we setting realistic expectations and are we clearly communicating them?
  • Do we communicate through open discussion or only written policies?
  • Is there open and transparent communication between management and employees?
  • Do we involve employees in decision-making processes and solicit their input on initiatives?
  • Is our recognition of employees proactive and genuine?
  • Are there opportunities for employees to grow and learn?
  • Do our policies and practices promote inclusivity and fairness for all employees?
  • How are we ensuring all our employees feel included and valued within the organization?
  • Do leaders prioritize employee well-being and model behaviors that promote a healthy work-life balance?
  • Do we allow our employees the ability to prioritize their well-being?

This list of questions is certainly not exhaustive but can serve as a starting point for an organization. By asking questions to identify systemic issues, organizations can identify areas for improvement and then take proactive measures in enhancing the organization’s culture to prevent burnout among their employees. Workplace well-being audits to assess whether workers feel supported, encouraged, and treated fairly can also be helpful.

Of course, the other aspect of this is how we respond to employees who say that they are feeling burned out. As a leader in an organization, when an employee comes to you expressing that they are burned out, take their concerns seriously. It may be tempting to remind the employee of the “tough it out” culture we have traditionally had in this profession or just tell them all they really need is a couple of days off from work. For an employee who is truly burned out, however, those recommendations are not going to cut it. In fact, they may do more harm than good in the end.

Responding to an employee who is feeling burned out requires both empathy and support. Make the time to address the employees’ concerns and ask questions to identify the root cause of their burnout, because remember, the causes are often found somewhere within the organization. After getting to the root cause, consider both short-term and long-term options available to address the employee’s burnout and make the organizational changes that are needed, and after the conversation, make you sure you follow up with the employee to see how the plan is going to show continued support for that employee. If appropriate, don’t forget to consider mentioning any mental health resources that may be available to the employee, whether that is through an employee assistance program or through a lawyer assistance program. But keep in mind that we need to address the systemic issues that exist rather than putting the responsibility solely on an individual to address their own well-being through items such as counseling, self-care, or taking time off work.

In addition to looking at the issue of burnout through the lens of an organizational approach, as a profession, we have the responsibility to also address this issue as a collective. Studies, such as the study conducted in 2023 by NORC at the University of Chicago with the Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, have consistently shown high rates of burnout within our profession. The overall culture of the profession, not just that of an individual organization, can also be a contributing factor to burnout. Long-standing traditional expectations established as early as law school play a role. Supply and demand circumstances, such as lawyer shortages in rural areas and growing dockets in metropolitan areas, can also lead to burnout. Low levels of autonomy, which are further perpetuated by deadlines that are established by court rules and beyond our control, don’t help either. Ultimately, these are all examples of systemic issues within the profession that extend beyond a single organization.

If we are going to achieve true wellbeing in the profession, we must address problems, such as burnout, on a systemic level and build supportive solutions, while dismantling some of our longstanding traditional norms. This includes treating well-being related issues as if the responsibility only falls on an individual. With collaboration and a shared commitment, we can continue to make a meaningful difference. Advocating for policy changes and promoting both individual and systemic responses can carve a path toward an environment in which we all thrive. 

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