stress-burnoutStress / Burnout

Everyone occasionally feels frustrated, depressed and dissatisfied. But when someone experiences depression or burnout, these negative emotions become chronic and last for weeks or months. There is only so much psychological energy to get through the day, and work may completely deplete this energy. When this happens, work performance is further reduced in terms of quality and quantity. The lack of emotional energy makes it harder to deal with personal relationships and one may become frustrated and easily angered with family and friends. Judges or lawyers experiencing burnout may find themselves wondering “why bother?” about work that previously invigorated them. Even the word, burnout, implies that at one time they were on fire, but the flame has now flickered.

Burnout has been called a “romantic disorder” because it is characteristic of a work ethic admired in the legal culture. Long hours and a selfless dedication to work – to the exclusion of self-care – can lead to burnout. In a North Carolina bar survey, 36 percent of judges and lawyers surveyed had not taken even a one-week vacation in the previous year. Learning how to manage stress and improve self-care is critical to preventing burnout. This, in turn, can help minimize the effects of depression.

The stresses identified in the survey are:

  • Time constraints and deadlines.
  • The high stakes involved, including a loss of property, freedom and even life.
  • The high expectations of expertise.
  • The constant scrutiny and critical judgment of our work from opposing counsel or the courts.
  • The legal process in general, which is inherently conflict-driven. An opposing counsel is always determined to prove his opponent wrong.
  • The threat of malpractice, Murphy’s Law, and CYB (cover your backside) from other lawyers and even your own clients.
  • A tendency to assume the clients’ burdens.
  • The demise of professional cordiality and camaraderie.
  • The contrast between effective advocacy and personal relationships. While lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, emotionally defended or withdrawn, and while that style may have practical value, it may not be popular outside the arena of the legal case.
  • The professional training that requires you to notice and anticipate the negative and the downside in all situations.
  • The group norms or culture in the law firm, which carries certain expectations, including high billable hours. On top of work obligations come CLE requirements, bar activities and community service work–all expected from the “good” lawyers.
  • The depletion of energy that comes from high demands, strong focus and the need to stay on task.
  • Frequent use of defense mechanisms–such as rigidity, compulsiveness, and perfectionism.

Article of Interest: Compassion, Fatigue and the Toll It Takes In Life and Work