A recent study focusing on Wisconsin public defenders found that 37.4 percent of them scored in the clinically significant range of burnout.1 While this study focused on one subset of practicing lawyers, all lawyers are under intense pressure and stress. Do you know what burnout is? Would you be able to recognize it in a colleague or in yourself? The word “burnout,” an overused and frequently misused term coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, typically refers to a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.2 Freudenberger identified 12 stages of burnout, but psychologists and burnout researchers Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter have since distilled those 12 phases into three specific dimensions:
Chronic exhaustion (wearing out, loss of energy, and fatigue);
Cynicism (irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal); and
Feeling increasingly ineffective on the job (reduced productivity and low morale).3
Although it may be tempting to think that a person burns out because of some flaw in the person’s character, behavior, or productivity, Maslach and Leiter’s research shows otherwise. They state, “We believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work…. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”4
Burnout is not feeling bummed out, having a bad day, or depression, although being burned out can lead to mental and physical health issues, including depression. I define burnout as the chronic state of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life; the result is a loss of energy, enthusiasm, and confidence. Eventually (and as I experienced), your physical health and mental well-being will likely deteriorate. While people do experience burnout in other areas of life, the focus of this article is burnout at work.
Burnout and Work
To get a better handle on burnout, you must examine whether you have a mismatch in one or more areas at work. The six areas are the following:
Workload (your workload is too much, too complex, or too urgent);
Control (your sense of control over what you do is often limited or undermined, and you don’t have much say over what is going on at work);
Reward (you feel taken for granted, not recognized, and undercompensated);
Community (you deal with patronizing partners and colleagues, there is no mechanism for conflict resolution, and feedback is nonexistent);
Fairness (you or others are treated unfairly, there is a culture of favoritism, and task assignments and promotions are arbitrary and discussed behind closed doors); and
Values (you experience a disconnect between your core values and the organization’s core values).5
Law firms and organizations employing lawyers must pay attention to burnout because when lawyers feel the strain of burnout, they fail to perform at their best. This increases the likelihood of making errors and of being less thorough and less capable of finding solutions and solving problems.
5 Tips for Preventing Burnout
The following five strategies will help you better manage your stress and prevent burnout.
1) Increase your self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is having the belief in your own ability to accomplish (and exercise control over) personally meaningful goals and tasks. Feeling like you have lost that control is a burnout indicator. People who have a higher level of perceived self-efficacy experience less stress in challenging situations, and situations in turn become less stressful when people believe they can cope.6
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is a stress and resilience expert who works with and coaches attorneys to help them manage chronic stress and avoid burnout. She also teaches stress management and resilience skills to military professionals, executives, and within the legal profession. Her online magazine, Build Your Strong, is a resource to help professionals manage stress and build happy, healthy lives.
The most direct and effective way to enhance self-efficacy is through performance-mastery experiences. When you accomplish a goal, your brain asks, “Hmmm, what else can I do?” Another way to build self-efficacy is to find a self-efficacy “model.” Simply observing a friend or work colleague accomplish something meaningful is contagious and increases your ability to meet challenges head on.7
2) Have creative outlets. Burnout interferes with your ability to perform well, increases rigid thinking, and decreases your ability to think accurately, flexibly, and creatively.8 Even if you aren’t able to flex your creative muscles at work, having some type of creative outlet will keep you engaged and motivated.
3) Take care of yourself. “There’s always something to do,” I can still hear my dad saying to me, as I sat relaxing at the end of my shift at his plastic-injection-molding company. “Here’s a broom.” I find it very hard to just sit and relax because it always feels like there is something to do (and there usually is).
When I was a lawyer, lunch often involved wolfing down some food-like substance at my desk while I continued to read contracts and catch up on emails. Although other people admired my work ethic, I was not working at a sustainable pace. It’s seductive to think that for the world to run right, you must always be present, sitting at your desk. But your body isn’t a machine (no matter how much caffeine and sugar you pump in). And really, whatever “it” is (finishing a brief, making phone calls, responding to emails) will still be there after you take a much-needed break.
4) Get support where you can find it. The more I burned out, the more I just wanted to hole up in my office and avoid people, and that was exactly the opposite of what I should have been doing. I didn’t want to let people know how awful I was really feeling because I thought it meant I was weak. It takes time and effort to maintain social connections, but supportive people are the best inoculation against burnout.
Worksheet: This worksheet may help you to reconnect with your values. Download here.
Article: “The Toll of Trauma,” Wisconsin Lawyer, December 2011 (study of Wisconsin State Public Defender attorneys examines effects of compassion fatigue, identifies factors contributing to risk of symptoms, and what can be done to mitigate it.)
WisLAP Helpline: Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) helps lawyers, judges, law students, and their families cope with life’s problems. Helpline available 24/7. (800) 543-2625.
5) Identify your values. I had to have some tough internal and external conversations when I burned out. I had to dig deep to uncover why I was a people-pleasing, perfectionist, achieve-aholic. I had to reconnect with my values. We all have values that we espouse, but the daily grind of practice may cause you to forget what they are, or you might discover that the culture of the legal profession doesn’t really support your values. If you need to do some values work, there is a great worksheet on my website (under the Freebies tab) for you to use.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Too many people die with their music still in them.” After finding this quotation in another article I wrote, one of my readers asked me, “What if the problem is that people are still alive but their music has died?” And that, my friends, is what burnout feels like – being alive but feeling like your music has died. There are ways to make sure that never happens to you.
1 Andrew P. Levin et al., Secondary Traumatic Stress in Attorneys and Their Administrative Support Staff Working with Trauma-Exposed Clients, 199(12) J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., 946-55 (2011).
2 Herbert J. Freudenberger, Staff Burnout, 30 J. of Soc. Issues 159-65 (1974).
3 Christina Maslach & Michael P. Leiter, The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What To Do about It 17-18 (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1997); see also Christina Maslach & Michael P. Leiter, Stress and Burnout: The Critical Research in Handbook of Stress Medicine and Health 155-72 (Cary L. Cooper ed., 2nd ed. 2005).
4 Maslach & Leiter, The Truth about Burnout, supra note 3, at 18.
5 Michael P. Leiter & Christina Maslach, Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work 14-19 (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005).
6 Albert Bandura, Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory, 44 Am. Psychologist 1175-84 (1989).
7 Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy 86-87 (New York, NY: W.H. Freeman & Co. 1997).
8 Czeslaw Noworol et al., Impact of Professional Burnout on Creativity and Innovation in Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research 163-75 (Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Christina Maslach, & Tadeusz Marek, eds., 1993).