- Burnout is the chronic overuse of emotional, intellectual and physical resources of a person.
- If you are always giving 100 percent or more, there is literally nothing left to give when challenges arise, which leads to burnout.
“Burnout breaks you in ways that do not heal.” I start most of my talks about burnout, legal project management, and attorney well-being with that phrase. I know this because I have burnt out—twice—and the frailties left behind are now mine to live with. After my first burnout, I picked myself up, healed the best I could, started back up again and then eventually burnt out again. That led me to two realizations: (1) I had to find a way to never do this again, and (2) I wanted to tell others how to avoid it.
There are six principles to avoid burnout as a litigator, which I will address in two Practice Points. In this Part 1, we focus on the attorney as an individual. In Part 2, we will focus on attorneys who may be in a managerial role.
For a long time, law firms have touted the idea of “work-life balance.” You’ve probably heard it before, but if you haven’t, let me tell you: that’s nonsense. First, assuming work and life should coexist in time and space at any point during your day, work always wins. Work is "urgent," work has to be handled "right away," work is unforgiving, and work always needs "one more minute." Second, the reality is that there must be inviolate compartments for life because connection requires focus of attention and purpose. Our kids, our partners, our families, and our friends can't be fit between two emails; meaningful conversations and moments require immersion, without outside interruption. I can hear you answer, “But I can’t,” “I don’t have time,” “I am indispensable.”
Evidently, the notion that we should be constantly available and perpetually responsive is to blame. But underlying that, looking at things differently, is the idea we should have "work-life balance." Balance indicates that work and life are of equal value and, most importantly, that we are of equal value to both of those aspects of our lives. But they aren't, and we aren't. You are indispensable to those who love you, not to those you pay you. Thinking of work-life as a boundary rather than a balance requires a shift in mentality, for sure, but it is a healthy one.
In October 2020 I nearly died. I knew that had I died, my employer would have replaced me within 14 days or, worse, not replaced me at all. Yet, I kept working as though I was irreplaceable. Not true. You are indispensable to those who love you, not those who pay you. A conversation with someone close to me further crystallized what it means to be indispensable to my family. As long as we talk about balance, we treat work and life as though they can tangle with each other, which is a false paradigm and leads to unfair outcomes for those in your life.
One way to avoid burnout is to remind yourself why you need to do so. Avoiding burnout is not a luxury and it is not optional. It is necessary. There is a personal cost to burnout. Lawyers don’t just burn out, heal, and start over. Burnout has long-lasting effects and has a very long recovery timeline (it took me two years to feel normal again the first time). Burnout has real physical consequences: “Burnout has been linked with physical consequences, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disorder, chronic pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and shorter life spans. Burnout is also associated with psychological effects, including depression and anxiety disorder.” Attorney Burnout, the High Cost of Overwork (Dec. 2018). Burnout also destroys personal relationships and robs us of time with people who love us and whom we love. Burnout steals the joys of practicing law and the countless sacrifices lawyers make to become attorneys. Burnout also turns us into miserable human beings, who treat each other poorly, which only further worsens the toxic legal culture, which generates more burnout, and round and round we go. In other words, burnout is forever. You will never be the same person again. Recovering from it is not enough, so stopping it is key. Remember that when the little voice inside your head tells you there is “more left in the tank.” There may be, but the price you pay will not be worth it.
I teach scuba diving. When folks go under water, they have a tank of air that when filled reads 3,000 psi. The rule is that when a diver gets to “half tank” (1,500 psi) they signal their dive leader or buddy. At that point, the divers turn around and start making their way back to the boat or shore or exit point. At 750 psi, a diver is said to be at “reserve” and the dive will end. The goal is to get back out of the water with as close to reserve as possible. I teach folks the following: the first half your tank is to have fun, the next quarter of your tank is to come back, the last quarter of your tank is for your family to make sure you stay safe. The same is true of your bandwidth. I am bombarded with the message that you “always have to give 120 percent.” That’s simply not healthy.
Running at 80 percent bandwidth means there is always enough left for “sprints.” Life is full of those: taking care of a sick family member, being sick, reaching for a promotion, delivering on a big project, or going the extra mile. If you are always giving 100 percent or more, there is literally nothing left to give when these challenges or opportunities come around, which leads to burnout. Burnout is the chronic overuse of emotional, intellectual and physical resources of a person. Running at 80 percent means you have enough reserves for the inevitable extra “asks” life throws at you without running out.