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After the Bar

Personal & Financial

Identifying Burnout and How to Fix It

Stephen M. Stepanovich MS LMFT EFCT

Identifying Burnout and How to Fix It
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For the past decade, I have had the pleasure of working with all kinds of people, including individuals, couples, and families. My career as a mental health professional (MS, Licensed MFT) has brought them to my office for care and solutions to various problems. Some of the most interesting I’ve worked with have been those who have chosen law as their profession. When talking with these individuals, one thing stands out: the unimaginable amount of work they are expected to do.

Attorneys, paralegals, and court clerks I have worked with share a similar experience. The expectations and number of hours they work are daunting and overwhelming. Systemically, clients who work as attorneys have shared with me that this pattern begins in law school, where it is almost always strongly advised and sometimes mandated that they should not work due to the number of hours they must spend on classes. In working with these clients, I can easily imagine that this feels like a loss of personal control, and your life is on hold.

Identify the Symptoms of Burnout

Once this new way of life begins, the feeling of burnout is not only felt individually but expected professionally. In therapy, we might identify this as a toxic relationship with work. An attorney’s value is often measured by how much they can produce. When you repeatedly deal with high levels of stress, long hours working on complex issues, and always having to be on, burnout is inevitable.

While experiencing burnout, it may be more challenging to focus, be motivated, and be effective at work and home. The overwhelming feeling of burnout affects all aspects of life, and feelings of anxiety and depression often begin to emerge. In some cases, issues at home begin to arise as lawyers may feel they are not there for their partner, or their partner feels they are not there for them. Some lawyers can feel isolated and have difficulty maintaining social connections. Others may have feelings of sadness and mourn the life they once had when they could drop everything and go.

What can you do when you experience burnout?

The consensus you may read online will point out that you need to focus on your needs and seek a break from the weekly grind. Unfortunately, as a lawyer, focusing on your needs may not feel like an option. Taking a day for self-care may risk being viewed at work as a weak link or unreliable, or not devoted to your career. If you have a mental health issue as a lawyer, you probably feel like you cannot let anyone know. And when you finally get a break over the weekend, you frequently get told, “I need this report done by Sunday.” The cycle repeats again and again.

If any of this sounds familiar, I am glad I have your attention. Attorney burnout is a real thing, and in my experience, most graduate students to tenured professionals all share this feeling at some point in their careers. One thing I constantly hear from patients is, “I have tremendous guilt if I can’t get the work done.” The question I would mirror back is, “what happens if your health turns for the worse? What happens if you cannot continue to work at this level for an overextended period?”

Show Yourself Compassion

The first thing to do is to listen to yourself and validate yourself. Show yourself some compassion and know that you are not the only person who has ever felt this way. Experiencing burnout does not mean that you are different, a bad professional, or weak. It means that your brain is working overtime, and you need to listen to your body and find a balance that works for you to return to a healthy mental state. Consistency over time equals results, so try to consistently remind yourself that taking care of mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health.

Take a Mental Health Break

Once you accept that you need a break, schedule it in your calendar for this weekend or next week at the latest. Try to take at least a half-day away from answering emails, checking social media feeds, and being jacked into your phone. A new trend on social media is “No Tech Sunday.” No TV, no phone, and no checking emails. Of course, emergencies come up that you cannot avoid, but challenge yourself to put the phone and laptop away and not pick them up.

Find a Park with Grass

If scheduling time off is not an option, you will need to get creative. One thing you can do is to find a park with grass. Take your shoes and socks off and stand in the grass barefoot for 10–15 minutes. Feeling the blades of grass between your toes and the Earth’s gravitational pull will help you hit the reset button and feel so good. You may even drift back to when you were a relatively stress-free kid and ran with your friends or family barefoot in the grass for just a moment. This intervention will help reset your circadian rhythm—the 24-hour cycle that regulates systems in your body to be most efficient. You can throw off your circadian rhythm by poor sleep schedules and extended periods of stress, so it’s essential to get it back on track to help you function at your best.

Try Breathing Techniques

If you want to take it further, try the 5-5-5 breathing technique while standing in the grass. Breathe in slowly for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, then breathe out slowly for 5 seconds, hold for another 5 seconds, and repeat three times. This technique can also be helpful even if you’re not able to get away from the office, allowing you to focus on breathing rather than the stress in your life and helping calm anxiety.

Seek Professional Help

Remember that you can always seek professional help if you are experiencing burnout. In addition to private options, many states offer Lawyer Assistance Programs to help provide support and resources to lawyers with mental health and substance abuse issues. Your feelings of burnout are valid, and you do not have to face them alone.