The legal profession is equal parts rewarding and stressful. As a lawyer, especially one who is just starting their own legal practice, you find yourself dealing with task overload; which can lead to fatigue, a feeling of inadequacy, stress and anxiety.
According to research conducted by ANZ Meritas Survey lawyers have especially high rates of depression and anxiety with 60 percent of respondents saying they had experienced depression or knew someone in the industry who had. These statistics are from 2019, but with the events of 2020 it's quite possible that these rates may be higher.
With these statistics, it's strange that lawyer burnout doesn't get more attention.
Causes of lawyer burnout
Running a legal practice comes with a range of responsibilites; whether it is client expectations, financial gains, court mandates, employee management, or family matters, these responsibilities can seem overwhelming, leading to burnout. The major causes of lawyer burnout include but not limited to;
• Inability to balance personal and professional life
• Idealistic standards and perfectionism
• Strong sense of responsibility
• Guilty feelings about missing events/activities
Impact of lawyer burnout
• Increased physical illnesses – Burnout often leads to physical conditions, such as headaches, lack of appetite, and tiredness, which are usually major causes of physical illnesses. If not taken care of, these conditions can exacerbate and lead to serious problems, including depression. Don't be afraid to leave work at a normal time and go exercise, or even use your lunch breaks to go for a walk and get some fresh air.
• Social withdrawal – As studies show, suffering from depression and anxiety can lead to self-enforced isolation. This is attributed to feeling inadequate or guilty, for example, due to failure to hit a target or commit to family responsibilities. In times of mandated isolation, it's important to seek interaction wherever you can.
• Poor performance – Burnout can make it hard to concentrate or fulfil a task successfully. Over some time, you are likely to see your performance decrease, especially if you fail to seek help early enough. Get ahead of the issue early and ensure that you're helping your legal practice thrive.
Preventing lawyer burnout
Although the law profession seems to foster burnout, there are proactive and effective ways practice managers can help to prevent burnout, and keep their lawyers healthy and productive.
More often than not, excessive workload tends to be the leading cause of burnout. It can prevent you from living a life beyond your work, which means neglecting your family and other social activities. Managers can help lawyers by lessening their responsibilities; for instance, they can bring in new lawyers to help with the workload or designate administrative tasks to other staff members. This can offer lawyers a time to regain energy to work more efficiently.
Talk to a professional
Speaking to an expert can help you locate and alleviate burnout. Managers should make it easy for lawyers to access behavioural counsellors, psychiatrists, and therapists who are better placed to help them navigate hard times. Developing a program geared toward this idea can go a long way in identifying symptoms of burnout before they cause physical or mental problems.
Separate work from home
Instead of working throughout and denying yourself time for yourself, draw a line between work and home hours. Working for too long can cause physical and mental exhaustion, which in turn affects your general health. Practice managers can contribute by not designating tasks beyond working hours. This may not always be possible, some matters are on extremely tight schedules, but if a task can be left for the next day it should. Having enough time to do things not related to work helps you recover.
Take care of your body
Lack of physical and mental exercises can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Create ample time to do exercises; for example, you can enrol for yoga classes, which will offer you an opportunity to strengthen and quiet your mind. Keeping healthy, both physically and mentally, is a sure way of preventing burnout.
No doubt, burnout is an issue that is affecting many lawyers today. If not well taken care of, it can lead you down a path of self-destruction, and probably an end to your career. Being aware of the causes, impact, and how to prevent it can help you avoid it, and accordingly, have a long and productive career.