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Practical Tips for Addressing Burnout

Catherine E Krebs


  • Burnout is a widespread issue among lawyers, particularly those working with traumatized clients in dehumanizing systems as the combination of significant work stress and an overabundance of purpose contribute to this exhaustion.
  • According to the WHO, burnout results from chronic workplace stress and is characterized by exhaustion, mental distance or cynicism towards one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
  • Practical ways to address burnout include completing the stress cycle by physical movement, adequate sleep, creativity, crying, laughter, community activities, imagination, love and connection, and deep breathing.
  • Addressing burnout also involves managing frustration from difficult systemic challenges, redefining success, recognizing systemic injustices, taking actionable steps within one’s control, and building supportive communities.
Practical Tips for Addressing Burnout
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Burnout: It is the number one thing that people want to talk about as I talk to lawyers around the country. The burnout they themselves are facing or the burnout faced by those we manage or those who supervise us, regardless, someone in their lives is experiencing burnout in a way that is really affecting them. And no wonder. Children’s lawyers have always faced burnout because of our work with clients who have experienced trauma and perhaps even more so because of our work within systems that consistently dehumanize and re-traumatize our clients. In addition, we can fall victim to an overabundance of purpose—what we do is really important—and that can drive us toward self-sacrifice. Add in the significant stressors of the last few years from the pandemic and other huge issues in the world . . . well, it’s no wonder we are all exhausted.

I am by no means an expert on burnout, but it is something I’ve researched and thought a lot about, and so in this article, I hope to share some real strategies and resources to help you address your own burnout. Mostly what I want you to know is that there are concrete ways you can address it. Just that knowledge can be an encouragement when we are deep in the throes of burnout.

What do I mean when I use the word “burnout”? The World Health Organization defines burnout as follows:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. 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; and
  • 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.

World Health Organization, International Classification of Diseases

Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski, identical twins, wrote a book called Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, which has been a really good resource for me in understanding the variety of different ways to address burnout, and I will draw upon their work for much of this article.

Most of us probably know by now that stress (things we perceive as a threat) can cause spikes in our adrenaline and cortisol, and that those spikes cause our bodies to want to fight, flee, or freeze—except that often in our daily lives, we are not actually able to fight, flee, or freeze. For example, we get a ruling in court that is harmful to our clients or we are sitting in our office and get a call about a client who was arrested. We feel that stress in our bodies, but we may not have a chance to work through that stress in a way that tells our bodies that we are now safe, or as Dr. Emily and Dr. Amelia posit, we don’t have a chance to complete the stress cycle, which leaves us in a state of chronic activation. The good news is that there are a lot of ways we can complete the stress response, which lessens that chronic activation, improves our overall health, and helps us with our burnout.

Here are some ideas from Dr. Emily and Dr. Amelia’s book Burnout on how we can complete the stress cycles that are triggered every day through our work. You don’t have to do all of these, though the more you can do, the more it will probably help. But even picking one thing to do every day can make a difference. Just pick what works for you.

Move your body. You knew this was coming, but the great news is that you don’t have to go out and run (unless that’s what you love). You can do any kind of movement that you love—walk, dance, swim . . . whatever it is, as long as you are moving. But don’t worry: If you don’t love to exercise, there are many more options!

Sleep. We forget this one sometimes, but sleep helps us process stress and reduces our adrenaline and cortisol. Also remember that some people need more than eight hours of sleep and that is OK!

Creativity. This one caught me by surprise, but creating something can be a great way to help us finish the stress cycle. This can be anything from writing, drawing, coloring, building something, singing, to cooking. (I now understand why I order everyone out of the kitchen when I make dinner! Thirty minutes of creating a meal at the end of the day is actually helping me address my burnout.)

Crying. There is a reason we cry when we get really overwhelmed. Turns out that this is a healthy way to complete the stress cycle!

Big laughing. You know those big belly laughs? Those can actually help us finish the stress cycle. In fact, even just reminiscing about belly laughter can help.

Moving/singing in community. I love this one. Whether you go out dancing with friends or you sing in church or a choir, moving or singing (or both) in community can help!

Imagination. Taking yourself through a full stress cycle in your mind can help you complete it. You can do that by going through a story that contains a full stress cycle just in your mind or with a TV show, a movie, a book, or even a video game. Our minds do not differentiate whether our stress is “real” or “imagined”; they just know they feel stressed, and then they receive relief as that stress is worked through and released.

Love/connection. Leaning into each other’s difficult emotions with love and kindness can be really helpful. Dr. Emily and Dr. Amelia say that the solution to burnout is not self-care; it is caring for each other.

Deep breathing. You probably knew this was coming too. Deep in-breaths and deep out-breaths. This does not have to be meditation (if fact, for some people, meditation can contribute to a feeling of “freezing” and may not be as helpful). It can simply be taking deep breaths and noticing, without judgement, what is going on around you. This can communicate to your body that you are safe.

On a recent podcast, Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski explain that being human is an action. We are meant to move in cycles. The above ideas can help you move through and complete the stress cycles that are part of everyday life in the work of children’s lawyers. Those ideas might be just what you need or might spark other thoughts on what you need to do to help complete your own stress cycles. For example, just listening to music can be helpful for me sometimes—or cranking up that music and singing at the top of my lungs in my car. Pick what you know works for you.

In addition to completing the stress cycle, there is work we can do to help us manage frustration. One cause of burnout can be when our progress toward a goal feels more effortful than we expect it to be. This can absolutely happen for children’s lawyers who have to fight tooth and nail to get our clients placed into a foster home rather than being “housed” in a child welfare office, or to secure the release of a client from a mental health facility when the only issue is that there is no place to go. It should not be so hard to just make sure our clients are sleeping in a safe place! The result can be a sense of real frustration and eventually burnout. To address this issue, you can think about redefining what “success” or “winning” might mean. Perhaps success in your representation of children might not mean getting the ruling that your client needs (something that is out of your control); maybe it means staying in close contact with your client, vigorously litigating in court using every means available to you, and appealing a ruling when needed.

Finally, one of the challenges that we face as children’s lawyers is standing next to our clients who may be facing systemic oppression (and of course lawyers of color are themselves facing systemic oppression as well). Facing obstacles that make us feel like there is no way to confront or navigate them for our clients can cause us to feel “learned helplessness.” To confront that challenge, we can start by recognizing that the system is unjust. Just knowing and acknowledging that the system in which we are working is often rigged against our clients can help. Secondly, there are areas in your life where you have agency—within those areas, do something. You may not be dismantling systemic racism, but you are showing your body and nervous system that you are capable of achieving safety, and that helps you prevent burnout in those other big areas. Note that Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski flag that it is sometimes suggested that a mind-set shift is what we need, but that mind-set is not really helpful when we are in a system that is truly rigged. Instead, “doing a thing” helps you stay well (see that list above if you need ideas). Lastly, a connection with others that focuses on each other’s well-being can be very helpful here. We are not designed to do big things alone; we are designed to do them with others. That is certainly true for children’s lawyers—this is hard work, and doing it within a community can be really helpful.

Hopefully, these ideas can get you started. There are many other good resources if you need them.

To learn more about the book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, visit here. This website has great discussion guides for the book and other resources, which you can find here.

If you’d prefer to listen to Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski on a podcast, here are two options to do that: Dan Harris, “For the Burned Out, Fried, and Exhausted: Emily & Amelia Nagoski,” Ten Percent Happier (No. 409) (Jan. 5, 2022), and Brené Brown, “Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle,” Unlocking Us (Oct. 14, 2020).

Or if you’d prefer to watch a Ted Talk, this is a good place to start: Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski: The cure for burnout (hint: it isn’t self-care), TED Talk (Apr. 2021).

Feel free to reach out to me to let me know about other resources you have found helpful to address burnout at [email protected]