As featured in the Law Society’s InsideOut magazine– January 2023 edition
Legal professionals are at high risk of burnout, which frequently results from enduring a long period of stress. Fatigue, aches, anxiety and change in sleeping patterns are noticeable signs of the stress that can lead to burnout. However, many early signs of burnout-inducing stress tend to fly under the radar.
Noticing early signs is instrumental to taking action. This post suggests 10 things you can do to slow down and regain wellbeing.
1. The early signs and why we often neglect them
You are no longer your real self, but you think this is only temporary
Burnout is a recognised occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Its primary symptoms are being emotionally exhausted by – and disengaged from – work. Recent research into wellbeing in the legal profession has shown that 69% of lawyers have experienced mental health issues (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) and that lawyers are at high risk of work burnout.
Signs of burnout can differ from person to person, as individual thresholds for coping with prolonged stress vary. Most people who experience job burnout retrospectively recognise a period when they started feeling less ‘themselves’. Family and friends usually flag this issue as it unfolds, saying ‘you are not your usual self’. And yet, because the attempts to manage stress are a daily moving target, and the fear of stigma is high, professionals who experience work burnout tend to dismiss this feedback. Repeatedly, they hope the stress is just ‘temporary’. But is it really when you scan and look at the whole period when stress moved from a healthy and energising level to an unhealthy level?
Acknowledging early signs and developing self-awareness is a vital step towards taking action. And taking action is key to that much-needed greater physical and mental care.
We sabotage early signs by clinging to the honeymoon period of our jobs
For burnout to occur, an initial honeymoon period with a job must have taken place. The duration of the honeymoon is personal but the common factor is significant emotional investment – giving the job 110%.
The sometimes long tail of the honeymoon period tends to obfuscate the early signs of burnout-inducing stress. The cherished memory of the golden period can be used to make the present more bearable. The honeymoon period may also magnify the sense of demotivation (the gap between ‘I was happy then but now’) that may flood the present. Reflecting on the honeymoon period (how we processed it, for example) is a key step towards the self-awareness that will lead to taking action: it allows us to connect the dots – ‘How did I get here?’
We may mistake a cynical outlook with having more experience
Detachment, avoidance games and disengagement from work start surfacing when work-related stress is prolonged and stretched to the point of burnout. This loss of interest in the job is sometimes seen by the person experiencing it as a sign of ‘having greater experience’, ‘having seen it all’ and ‘already knowing the drill’. A cynical detachment is different from a healthy detachment, but drawing a line between the two can be difficult.
A cynical outlook may appear as a lack of interest or confidence in the organisation or in the work itself, greater intolerance of others, perceiving the industry sector in which we work as futile, or seeing the job we do as useless (‘clients will never understand this’). It’s the negative outlook which is initially en passant but later becomes dominant. One reason early signs of cynicism may fly under the radar is that – while social feedback to, say, anger, tends to be immediate and largely consistent – social feedback to cynicism is more inconsistent. It is far less triggering.
2. What can be done to stop or slow down the early signs of work burnout?
When things become way too overwhelming and start affecting our lives at work and outside work, the following 10 strategies can make the difference in slowing down work burnout:
- Start noticing – by journaling, for example – your shifts in mood, and ask for safe feedback from family, friends and trusted colleagues. A lot of help is available both inside and outside the workplace – from GP and self-referral centres to support groups, charities, online resources and specialised professionals.
- See whether you can stop fighting the unfightable. This is, in a way, a brave move because it requires a significant change in mindset. Reaching greater acceptance can be a major journey, and the smallest let-it-go realisations can act as catalysts for greater let-it-go realisations.
- Start building stronger boundaries. Setting good boundaries has two dimensions:
- Working on better time management and working smarter: To make time for downtime, start with small incremental changes and easy wins: outside office hours, turn off notifications on your mobile; set and stick to a realistic time to end your working day; add 5 more minutes to your lunch break; consider delegating more.
- Deeper introspection on why setting boundaries (and saying ‘no’) is hard: Building strong boundaries does not happen overnight – it often has deep roots. Lacking strong boundaries is not a fault or a weakness; it is far more likely linked to our boundaries not having been respected for a long time. Feeling unable to say ‘no’ can add to the causes of burnout and unless untangled, this feeling will resurface.
- Exercise – plenty if you can, but every little bit helps. Every incremental increase (time or frequency) counts. Keep it simple and set realistic expectations; the last thing you need is further self-imposed pressure and building up on the sense you ‘can’t do it’.
- Transform perfectionism from an unhelpful factor that contributes to anxiety and stress to a strength of yours. Analytical thinking will allow you to assess where you put too much pressure on yourself. What were your expectations in the workplace? Use your perfectionism and high standards as a lawyer to develop a schedule that includes relaxation time, better sleeping hours and exercise.
- Cultivate mindfulness to release judgement and stop comparing yourself with others, especially the ones you idealise – the ones who ‘can manage it all’.
- Educate yourself. We are not born with solid self-awareness and brilliant introspection. We develop these skills. We become aware by reading more and discussing our coping mechanisms, what triggers us, why it triggers us and what our coping mechanisms are. We come to understand the contributing internal and external factors that are unique to us and cause us stress.
- Practise expressing gratitude. A lot of our perceptions start shifting when we see the abundance in ourselves and in life. Stress and burnout call for huge doses of self-kindness.
- Eat well and seek help regarding physical care, whether it’s from a good app, a professional advisor or an accountability partner. Start noticing your caffeine and sugar intake and how they have increased over time or contributed to changes in your sleeping patterns.
- Spend more time with elderly people. Being immersed in wisdom while sharing time with people who typically have plenty of free time is healing. If combined with love for nature and green spaces, it’s doubly healing.