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Litigation News

Fall 2019, Vol. 45, No. 1

Recognizing and Combating Occupational Burnout

Joseph Beckman


  • Lawyer stress is, and likely always will be, an inescapable part of our profession. 
  • The job description of practitioners now includes mentor, author, speaker, business developer, public servant, and profit center, among others
Recognizing and Combating Occupational Burnout
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Lawyer stress is, and likely always will be, an inescapable part of our profession. The constantly expanding “next day to your doorstep” expectations for deliveries of books, iPhone accessories, and cat toys, as well as streaming on demand, fuel ever growing performance expectations from clients and colleagues. Perfectionists by nature, we buy into these demands.

We tell ourselves it isn’t enough just to be a great practitioner anymore. These days, our job descriptions include mentor, author, speaker, business developer, public servant, and profit center, among any number of other expectations. The stress we feel is real and justified, but it need not sabotage the fulfillment that we know exists in our great calling.

Not Your Father’s Burnout

News flash: “Burnout” is no longer just a colloquial designation for being sick and tired of your job. According to the April 2019 release of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization’s handbook that guides medical providers in diagnosing diseases, “burnout” has been promoted from a problem “related to life management difficulty.” It is now officially a “factor influencing health status,” in the subcategory of “problems associated with employment or unemployment.”

Specifically, ICD-11 defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

The Law as a Perfect Petri Dish for Burnout

The law, as even a law student knows, is a jealous and demanding lover. It is, by and large, an unforgiving culture. It commands long hours. For many of us, as once observed by a famous Illinois lawyer who likely dealt with his own blue moods (both before and after becoming president), those billable hours are “our stock and trade.”

This is not a new phenomenon. For example, studies dating to the mid-1980s and early 1990s found depression among law students and new lawyers occurring at rates two to four times the level found in the general population. Law students and young lawyers also exhibited symptoms of “obsessive-compulsive behavior, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism (social alienation and isolation)” at levels significantly higher than in the general population.

People who are “burned out” often report a wide variety of feelings, few of which reflect the types of emotions people tend to prize. These feelings can range from exhaustion to detachment. A lawyer’s attitude may be cynical, irritable, or bored. You may feel irreplaceable or paranoid or both.

The more these feelings dominate your day, the more likely you are approaching (or have reached) “burnout.” Regrettably, the same “high achiever” bent that enabled us to do well in college and succeed in law school may train us to ignore these warning signs.

The problem, of course, is these things tend to be cumulative. A complicating factor is, save for a small number of us, the need to keep a paycheck coming in while searching for the time to invest in ourselves and our mental and physical health may push us to relegate “self-care” to the back burner. This only increases the potential for burnout.

Pessimism and Perfectionism: A Dangerous Combination

Perfectionism is a quality that helps a lawyer succeed in practice, in part because our profession is incredibly detail-oriented. Moreover, law is one of the few businesses where a bent toward pessimism—as opposed to optimism—is an asset. Face it, lawyers are hired to anticipate and point out things that can (possibly) go wrong, whether in a transaction or at a trial.

Yes, as lawyers, we are in effect “paid worriers.” We are prized by our clients for a perceived ability to predict the future. We are expected to guard against any and every possible threat. One outgrowth is a tendency to see danger everywhere.

Naturally, this combination wears on a person over time. Perhaps worst of all, the “perfectionism” side makes it more likely a lawyer will focus on her “big mistake” in an outsized way, as compared with all the things she got right.

The “Upside of Stress”: A Silver Lining?

These things are, in a word, stressful. How we view the stress, however, can literally change the way it impacts us. If we see the stress as harmful to our health, we are more likely to fall ill and succumb to it. People who are highly stressed but don’t believe the stress is harmful, however, are the least likely group to die. In short, stress doesn’t kill people, but the belief that the stress is harmful does!

According to a 2013 TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a nationally known health psychologist and Stanford lecturer, “[t]he old understanding of stress as an unhelpful relic of our animal instincts is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart—it’s what allows us to be fully human.” McGonigal contends that choosing to view the stress response as a positive thing creates a “biology of courage” and that connecting with others under stress helps foster resilience. (Note: As of August 2019, this was—by a wide margin—the 20th most viewed TED Talk of all time, and McGonigal published a book on the topic two years later.)

You Already Know Tried-and-True Paths to Avoid Burnout

We know (and this column has discussed previously) the importance of mindfulness, regular physical exercise, diet, and sleep. But knowing intellectually the value of these things and implementing them are two different things.

Perhaps the skill that is least developed, yet which may be most important, is mindfulness. As McGonigal’s speech suggests, the awareness that stress is good for you may serve to redirect the stress from a “negative” to a “positive.” Perhaps that momentum switch is, in and of itself, something that can turn the direction from burnout to rejuvenation.

Of course, these are not one-time magic pills. The trips to the gym need to be at regular intervals if you are to keep your “burnout battery” as fully charged as your cell phone. Your “mindfulness” should also be a regular small investment, for the mere process of reminding yourself of the positive things that make up your mantra should serve to help keep you centered.

McGonigal mentions how connecting with others who are also under stress can help foster resilience. That, of course, requires the “bulletproof lawyer” to risk sharing her feelings of imperfection with others, maybe even with a peer.

This concept may not be at the level of an involuntary reflex for the “pessimistic perfectionist” lawyer. The funny thing, however, is that research shows there is great power in precisely connecting with others by sharing one’s vulnerability. For some help to the uninitiated in understanding how to tap into this power, consider investing 20 minutes in the fourth most popular TED Talk of all time, Brené Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability.”

There Is No Magic Bullet

Of course, what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. For one person, getting to the gym twice a week for the “good sweat” and friendly trash talk (both on the court and in the locker room) may be the antidote to burnout. For another, it may be a daily 10-minute meditation while the coffee is brewing and no one else in the house is stirring, and a few 3-minute meditations at set times during the workday. The key is to become mindful of the signs you are moving from “ordinary” stress to burnout and take steps to turn down the flame.