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Let's talk about burnout! Are lawyers more likely to succumb to this mental health pandemic?

Updated: 6 days ago

A lady sleeping as she is exhausted
Exhaustion is part of burnout

Let's talk about burnout. A word barely heard 20 years ago, yet now many claim its impact is reaching epidemic proportions. The lyrics of 'Burnout' by Green Day hit the nail on the head for me - 'not growing up just burning out!' Growing up in the 80's was gritty but exciting - everything was fresh and new. I dashed into the legal profession like a Japanese bullet train, hooked by the prestige and proud to try to be the perfect solicitor working harder, better and longer. I could only drool over the distant partnership prize. But somehow, growing up became more about crippling caseloads, long hours (maybe working weekend or doing over nighters), pacifying demanding clients, keeping abreast of gruelling court timetables, toxic internal politics with often no appreciation. It was all part of 'living the dream,' I told myself, ignoring low spirits, trampling over niggling doubts and watch my flagging energy levels hit new lows. If my peers were coping - loving it even - why couldn't I? Then the ever present anxiety becomes my ever present bedside companion. Had I remembered to file the defence in time? I would jolt awake, sweating. I never hit burnout but I could see how many would. Stoically, we keep going to pay the mortgage, the private school fees or the car loan. Burnout somehow, surreptitiously, silently creeps up on us, then slams us into a brick wall.

So what is burnout out? The word was first coined by the psychoanalyst, Herbert Freudenberger, to describe the consequences of severe work-related stress. Freudenberger was working round the clock and putting in gruelling hours at the addiction clinic where he worked. One day he was unable to get out of bed and missed his flight. He recorded his thoughts and later, replaying the tape, was stunned by his exhaustion and the anger he felt. He compared notes with other staff in the clinic and was struck by how many similarities there were between the clinic's burnout staff and the addicts at his clinic. This gave him the idea to appropriate the slang term 'burnout' `(it then referred to addicts challenged by extensive drug use.) Fast forwarding to today, burnout is not recognised as a distinct mental disorder. According to the World Health Organisation, it is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress and characterised by mental and emotional exhaustion, feelings of negativity or cynicism towards work and feeling distanced from work. Experiencing burnout can be a challenging and overwhelming. It can cause a host of issues from crippling fatigue, pointlessness, disassociation, sweating, brain fog, depression, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks and migraines are just some of the symptoms. What is interesting is comparing those who succumb to burnout with those who bounce back, research shows that how we choose to respond to on-going work stressors and challenges is the differentiator.

Are lawyers more likely to succumb to this mental health crisis?  The charity, Law Care, thinks so. It was the first to undertake research into this area. Between 2020-2021 they surveyed more than 1,700 UK legal professionals in the UK gaining 'robust evidence' and finally concluding that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout. More than a quarter of participants (28%) were required to be available to clients 24/7 and 22% had said they felt “unable to cope,” whilst 6% admitted having suicidal thoughts. Realm Recruit Stress at Work survey in 2023 found key factors were an unmanageable caseload (57%), a poor work/life balance (42%) and poor management (39%).

Interestingly, the highest risk of burnout is experienced by legal professionals between the ages of 26 and 35. Now often seen as the 'burnout generation', adults in their 20s and 30's are struggling more than their predecessors with burnout. This may, at first blush, appear puzzling and the reasons are complex. Expectations now are certainly different. In previous generations the toxic office culture was the norm - bullying, sexism, and rascism abounded. Yet no beleaguered worker cohort ever complained about their lot as it is all they knew. Feeling lukewarm about a job and career prospects was also pretty common. Nobody commented about that either. One went to work to pay the mortgage and pay the bills. Social media impressively exploded this bubble. It empowered those coming into the workplace (the millennials) to stand up for their rights and to expect better. They had grown up believing the world was their oyster - they could do anything - be anyone they wanted to be. Other factors include the burgeoning 'hustle culture' they grew up with and the engrained belief that money and celebritism was available to anyone - with the implicit message that if you don't make the elite gang there's something wrong with you. Millennials are also fierce idealists - like their boomer parents - driven to change the wrongs of society. They want to respond passionately rather than stoically. This is key differentiating factor from the mindset of the preceding generation. They were ill prepared to face the reality of the state of the world they were inheriting - from financial turbulence, cultural dissonance, increased conflict and instability, changing world leaders and economic powers, and the destruction of the environment as well as the march of technology, all of which presents a physical as well as existential crisis. The zoomer generation are different again. Like the millennisals, they may be ill-prepared to face the crisis ahead, but they are not idealists and many have not bought into 'the dream' so hit the burnout wall faster. Their response is more likely to be to disengage or move away from the system to naviagate their own ship. This independent mindset may be a challenge for organisations but it could well be their saving grace mental health wise. Law firms may be wise to find different ways to harness this independence to create more resilient and flexi law firms that can survive a turbulent future.

So if you are feeling disengaged, fatigued or anxious, what can you do? The first thing to realise is that you are not alone. Slow down. Understand what is important to you and re-prioritise Work out which balls you can drop rather than beating yourself up for not being perfect. Learning to be gentler on yourself is a big step forward.

Meditation is one way to calm down the mind and help to recover from burnout
Girl meditating looking at beautiful, mountain view

Three top tips that may help ease back the pressure.

1. If you can, open up about how you feel to someone you trust. Taking fears out of your head and sharing the burden will help relieve pressure.

2. Pay more attention to your life style. Choosing, say, to rehydrate with water is better than caffeine, which increases your adrenaline and cortisol levels. This can cause you to be more anxious and jittery. Try to get outside and get some exercise as well as sunshine and vitamin D. This will help balance your parasympathetic system.

2. The third tip is to start a stress diary. This will help you keep tabs on your mood and fatigue levels. It also ensures that you are looking after you and your own mental health. Should you notice that stress is consistently creeping up or you are more disengaged than engaged at work, then perhaps it is time to make an appointment to see a burnout therapist or counsellor.

Nathelie Tudberry is an accredited CBT hypnotherapist and coach who specialises in burnout and anxiety. She has worked in the legal field for over 20 years supporting legal professionals and law firms. She also works for a national charity as a panic and anxiety helpline volunteer.


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