How to Avoid Burnout: Ideas for Improving Your Current Condition

Megan Grandinetti
Burnout can have a profound effect on your mental and physical health.

Burnout can have a profound effect on your mental and physical health.

Westend61 via GettyImages

I once provided a sample list of wellness workshops to a professional development coordinator at a large law firm, including one on “Avoiding Burnout.” In response to my list, the development coordinator told me that the firm would never support a talk that included the word “burnout.” I had to revise my sample list and have my content pre-approved before they agreed to host me as a speaker. Apparently, “burnout” is a bad word.

What Is Burnout? And Why Is It So Taboo?

If you google the word “burnout,” you’ll come across many definitions of the term. Most definitions include the words “stress” and “exhaustion,” but sometimes it can be hard to recognize burnout until you’re already out like a light bulb.

Imagine a young, nervous, type A attorney who delves into law firm life with vigor and excitement. She works, and works, and works. Another assignment? Sure! I’d be glad to help! Another weekend at the office? Of course, no problem. Another holiday interrupted? Um, ok. Another vacation ruined? You’ve got to be kidding me. The enthusiasm wanes, the excitement falls away, and all that is left is one anxiety-ridden, exhausted, angry, resentful, and bitter associate, who develops a really bad case of walking pneumonia. (For the record, that attorney was me.)

It isn’t something that comes only with the territory of being a law firm associate or with being an attorney. And burnout (which usually involves overwork, overstress, and sleep deprivation) can—and often does—lead to serious mental and physical health problems, including depression, high blood pressure, migraine or tension headaches, and a compromised immune system.

Why is it so taboo to talk about lawyer burnout? To start, many legal employers want to be perceived as offering a great “work-life balance,” even if that’s not always true. And many lawyers don’t want to let on that they may be burned out for fear of looking, in some way, inferior or less capable. So it’s better not to mention the B-word, lest the legal community catch on to the fact that you, or your attorneys, might be overburdened.

How Do I Recognize the Signs of Burnout?

In my experience (both as a coach and as someone who has burned out several times in her life), the crux of burnout is that you are so involved in your job and the stresses of everyday life that you forget to connect with yourself. You forget to check in and ask, “how is my job or my current situation affecting me?” before it’s too late.

Here are some common signs that burnout is on the horizon:

  • You have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • You are beyond tired, no matter how much sleep you get.
  • You cringe when someone gives you a new assignment at work, no matter how interesting or exciting it would otherwise seem to you.
  • You don’t have the time or the energy to socialize, and you get irritable or change the subject when family or friends ask about your job.
  • You fixate on your next vacation (or fantasize about quitting your job) as the answer to your problems.
  • You use food, alcohol, or drugs to help cope with stress.
  • You can’t see a light at the end of your work tunnel.

Burnout is taboo for a reason. It’s very serious, and it can have a profound effect on your mental and physical health.

So How Can I Avoid Burnout?

Unfortunately, there is no magic list of six to twelve items that will prevent every lawyer from burning out. But there are some things that you can do to check in with and take care of yourself so you can keep the B-word at bay:

Prioritize Exercise and Self-Care

As lawyers, we’re used to putting the needs of others (our clients) before our own. Deadlines and court dates trump personal needs, right? (Most of the time, sadly, yes.) But exercising and practicing self-care (i.e., taking steps to nurture yourself in a healthy way) can and must be a priority. Physical exercise can help reduce stress, increase your cardiovascular health, and lift your mood, among other things. You don’t have to exercise for one hour to make it count; daily exercise, even for just ten minutes, can have a positive impact. Try taking a brisk walk during lunchtime, make a date with a friend or romantic partner to exercise after work, or take a yoga class you’ve wanted to try. Other self-care ideas? Get a relaxing massage or acupuncture treatment; buy yourself flowers to brighten up your workspace; make yourself a healthy, homemade meal; or take a long, hot bath.

Create 5 Minutes of Distraction-Free Time Each Day 

Many studies support practicing meditation and mindfulness as a means for reducing stress and anxiety, and for relieving the physical symptoms of stress. Taking five minutes every day is an easy place to start. For those five minutes, silence all electronics, find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths. Your thoughts may race, you may try to make excuses as to why you need to stop the timer early, and you may be uncomfortable. Those experiences are all normal, and that’s OK. Just keep coming back to your breathing. Try counting your inhalations and exhalations until you get to ten breaths, and then start again, as a way to keep your focus on your breath. When the timer goes off, notice how you feel, give your body a little stretch, and get back to your day when you’re ready.

Unplug before Bedtime

The only thing worse than being stressed and overworked is being stressed and overworked and unable to sleep. You toss, you turn, you mull over what happened in today’s meeting, you realize you don’t have nearly enough done for tomorrow. And then somehow, it’s 3 a.m. and you’re lying there, paralyzed by the elephant sitting on your chest. Part of the problem is that we’re an overstimulated and overworked society, and we make it worse by taking our smartphones and tablets to bed. Try to disconnect at least thirty minutes before bedtime. Put your phone and your tablet away, turn off the TV, and find a way to unplug. I suggest taking a hot shower or a hot bath just before you get between the sheets, reading a book about something that won’t stimulate you, listening to soothing music, cuddling with your partner, or practicing your breathing.

Go Outside Right Now

Whenever you find yourself overwhelmed or disconnected, head outside: maybe for a breath of fresh air, maybe for a short walk, or maybe (if you can make the time) for a hike. Breathe the fresh, free air into your lungs. Feel the earth solidly supporting your feet. Look up at the sky and notice the colors, the clouds, the sun, the moon, or the stars. If you have access to a body of water, watch the water ripple and flow with ease. The beauty and perfection of nature exist without you having to do anything, to be anything, to exert any effort. There is a whole world outside that has nothing to do with your job: breathe in nature’s spaciousness, breathe out stress.

Talk to Someone

Burnout is often precipitated by a feeling of: I can’t do it all on my own. We’re too proud to admit it (to our bosses, to our partners, to ourselves), and we feel ashamed: I am a big-time failure for not being able to handle this. But if you talk to someone who can listen without judgment (a friend, therapist, or coach), you might find that the load you’ve been carrying on your shoulders is a little lighter. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone; you have plenty of people around you who would be willing to help if they knew that you were having a hard time. Admitting that you need help is not a weakness; it’s a sign of true strength.

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Megan Grandinetti

Megan Grandinetti is an attorney, wellness coach, and yoga teacher.