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Is It Time To Turn Off The ‘Always-On’ Culture?

  • April 18, 2023

“Burnout Is Nine Tenths Of The Law”


This old saying arguably still rings true in the 21st century when ‘stress’ and ‘burnout’ were often perceived to come with the turf as a lawyer, long before anyone had even heard of Covid-19, and the seismic changes that brought to the workplace.

There are numerous reports, research, and insight that indicates the burnout crisis has actually worsened over the past few years – driven by the blurring of boundaries between personal and work life as emails and calls are answered out-of-hours, and working from home often means working around the clock.

Solicitors and other legal professionals are acutely aware of the negative impacts of an overworked lifestyle, as seen from the results of a survey done by Legatics, with over 25% of lawyers stating that they experience burnout on a daily basis. With increasing caseloads and long working hours, stress can creep up and lead to burnout for those who don’t take measures to maintain their work-life balance, and address the warning signs head on.

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done. When legal professionals are engaged in their work, they are invested in their law firm and more likely to work harder towards their goals. However, they can also fall victim to the workaholic culture that is rooted in this field and feel pressured to ’soldier on’ at the risk of their own well-being.

By their very nature, legal professionals are perfectionists, high-achievers and undoubtedly ambitious – yet LawCare, a non profit organisation for the legal sector, reported that ‘stress’ is the top reason people within this sector called their helpline.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the signs of burnout and the steps you can take to avoid it.

But before we do, it’s worth defining the difference between stress and burnout. Although often used simultaneously, they are very different things.

The Difference Between Stress and Burnout

It’s essential to know the difference between stress and burnout.

Stress is common to all of us and can be caused by anything from dealing with your end of month deadlines, to delivering a case to court or pitching for a new client.

In other words, stress can kick in when we have a little more on our plate than usual, and often with timely deadlines. Sometimes this can be a good thing as it provides the motivation to get the job done – good stress as the name implies helps you perform well in a challenging situation, because it wires the brain in a positive way, leading to stronger neural networks and greater resilience.

However, burnout is something different.

Burnout is a complete inability to function, even on a fundamental level. Exhaustion, disillusionment and despair are vital signs, and it is common for sufferers not even to have the will to get out of bed.

Additionally, burnout can take a long time to recover from, and so it’s critical to maintain your mental health in the workplace to ensure you are working at peak performance: for yourself, your team, and your firm.

Who Is At Risk?

‘You can only “burnout” if you have been “alight” in the first place’. (Mindtools)

Anyone can become exhausted. But did you know that burnout mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work?

Burnout often happens to high achievers – the individuals who relentlessly volunteer for additional caseloads or to stay late regularly to help prepare reports.

The nature of high performers also means that they are happy to help others – all adding to the weight of their work. From mentoring Paralegals to ‘just helping Dan get this table centred on his document’ – these additional tasks may be small things, but they will start to chip away at the individual’s ability to cope.

The Signs of Burnout

Are you at risk from burnout at work? Here are the signs to watch out for:

You have an excessive workload:

  •  Too much work on your plate leads to longer hours, poor diet, little sleep and low energy, which manifests as stress and soon leads to mental and physical exhaustion.

Your get up and go has gone:

  • You just can’t be bothered with the things that used to interest you. And not only at work – but socially too.

Your stress response is heightened:

  • Normally calm and considered, you have a short fuse as your stress levels rise. You may become prone to angry outbursts and a personality shift.

You’re experiencing severe exhaustion:

  •  You can barely summon up the energy to get up in the morning and have no desire to get dressed and go to work. This goes beyond low motivation; the very thought of having to get out of bed and go to the office can make you feel physically ill.

You feel cynical

  • Your previously positive attitude dissolves into a feeling that everything is meaningless. The things that used to motivate you – pride in a good job, inspirational colleagues, ambition to do well in your career – all now seem pointless.

You have dark thoughts

  • Burnout can take your mind to a bad place. The belief that you can’t change how you currently feel can leave you fearing the worst-case scenarios.

Avoiding Burnout

There’s no getting away from the fact that burnout is extremely serious, and much more than just a case of being ‘a bit stressed’ at work. If you, or a colleague, is exhibiting any of the above signs, now is the time to deal with them.

1. Rediscover Your Why

‘Why’ Look at the impact of the work you do and the positive effect it has on other lives. The PERMA model can help bring meaning to your life. If you think you are in the wrong role, maybe now is the time to consider a move and rediscover your passion for what you do.

2. Reassess Your Workload

What do you need to do, and what is additional? Reassess your role to identify what is essential and what you can delegate to cut out the excess. If necessary, schedule time with your Senior Partner to discuss reallocating non-essential work.

3. Exercise

From a yoga session to taking up squash, whatever floats your boat is good for the psyche. Building in time to exercise can not only increase your health but provide additional benefits such as positivity and energy, as well as contribute to a better night’s sleep.

4. Readdress Your Work-Life Balance

Make time to spend away from the office with friends and family. Doing something you love – maybe something creative or just relaxing – will help you perform more effectively when you are at work, as well as improve your work-life balance.

5. Manage Your Stress

Mindfulness techniques can help with short-term stress. A regular five- or ten-minute meditation will clear your neural pathways and calm your breathing, enabling you to tackle projects and caseloads more efficiently.

6. Think Positively

A fascinating body of research by the Harvard Business Review indicated that re-labelling negative stress emotions as something positive can help you see things in a positive light, rather than a negative pressure.

So, fear becomes anticipation, flustered becomes excited, and dread becomes caution.

In Conclusion

Whilst burnout isn’t classed as a medical diagnosis, it was classified in 2019 as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO); a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

And whilst working within the legal profession can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be overwhelming and stressful by its very nature.

This feeling of overwhelm, stress, and eventual burnout does not happen overnight, and whilst it can be a serious problem if left unchecked, recognising the warning signs and taking action early on is key.

What Next?

If you found this article informative, check out more of our blogs written primarily for the legal profession, or if you’re looking for that ideal legal role, check out the vacancies we have available.

For further tips or advice, call our team on 01772 259 121 and let’s have a conversation to explore your options.

About Clayton Legal

Clayton Legal has been partnering with law firms across the country since 1999 and during that time has built up an enviable reputation for trust and reliability. We have made over 5,000 placements from Partners to Legal Executives, Solicitors to Paralegals and Legal IT personnel to Practice Managers.

If you are building your legal team or looking for your next career move, we can help. Call us on 01772 259 121 or email us here.

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