Being truly productive is not about filling your time with more work and plugging away at your to-dos without breaks. Still, managing a heavy caseload and working beyond office hours are expected and even glorified in the legal industry.
Overwork is considered a badge of honor when it is equated with dedication, responsiveness, and a can-do attitude. But when mounting stress pushes you into the downward spiral of burnout, it is impossible to make meaningful contribution and perform at your peak. The fire in your belly fades out and the inner drive gets replaced with indifference and disillusionment.
Knowing the symptoms helps you spot burnout and take action to alleviate it. Understanding the effects of overwork and other contributory factors is key to preventing and stopping burnout. Recognizing the consequences of burnout makes you less likely to ignore the telltale signs.
What is Burnout?
There is no clear definition of burnout. More often, it is discussed in terms of its common symptoms. Although burnout is typically linked with chronic stress, they are not the same. Burnout is at the extreme end of the stress continuum.
In the 1970’s, psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term and referred to it as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”
Christina Maslach, psychologist and creator of the leading burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI), describes burnout as a syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic, job-related stress. She notes that burnout is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”
In the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), burnout is given its own code (Z73.0) and is referred to as a state of vital exhaustion. Burnout, however, is not recognized as a medical diagnosis in part because its symptoms overlap with those of more widely studied conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorder, as well as physical illnesses.
While there are questionnaires to self-assess burnout, there are no official methods to diagnose burnout or whether the symptoms are caused by something else.
What are the Common Symptoms of Burnout?
Warning signs of burnout include emotional symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness; inability to focus; feeling empty or depressed; chronic anxiety; increased irritability; intolerance of others; and withdrawal from friends and family. Physical symptoms include headaches; indigestion; nausea; sudden weight loss or gain; and getting sick more frequently. Among the behavioral symptoms are insomnia; alcohol dependence; and substance misuse.
Maslach’s 3 key dimensions of burnout
Maslach and her colleagues found that burnout has three key dimensions:
Emotional exhaustion is overwhelming exhaustion that includes low energy, depletion and fatigue. It is feeling emotionally drained by interpersonal contact and being overextended and exhausted by one’s work.
Depersonalization refers to cynicism and detachment, i.e. a negative and excessively impersonal response toward clients (recipients of one’s services or care) and various aspects of the job. It is usually associated with irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal and other negative shifts in attitude.
Reduced personal accomplishment is a sense of inefficacy and a feeling of ineffectiveness in producing the desired results. It refers to a negative self-evaluation of professional competence. It is linked to depression, low self-esteem, low morale, and an inability to cope.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory™ evaluates the three dimensions with a 22-item survey using a 7-point Likert scale for responses. An answer reflects both the frequency and intensity of feelings and may range from “Never” to “Every day”.
The Emotional Exhaustion subscale includes nine items, such as “I feel burned out from my work,” “I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job,” and “I feel I’m working too hard on my job.” Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.
The Depersonalization subscale includes five items, such as “I’ve become more callous towards people since I took this job,” “I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally,” and ” I don’t really care what happens to some recipients.” Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.
The Personal Accomplishment subscale includes eight items, such as “I feel I’m positively influencing other people’s lives through my work,” “I feel exhilarated after working closely with my recipients,” and “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.” Lower scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.
Freudenberger’s 12-stage model of burnout
Freudenberger described the development of burnout in 12 stages, which do not necessarily occur in order and might not all be experienced in every case:
1. Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition; obsession with proving worth)
2. Working harder (inability to switch off; taking on more work)
3. Neglecting needs (lack of social interactions; unhealthy diet; irregular sleep)
4. Displacement of conflicts (roots of problems are dismissed; feel threatened by disagreements)
5. Revision of values (work becomes the only focus; life becomes one-dimensional as family, friends, hobbies, etc. are neglected)
6. Denial of emerging problems (intolerance; inflexibility in thoughts and behavior; cynicism; aggression)
7. Withdrawal (hopelessness; reduced sense of direction; use of alcohol and drugs for stress relief)
8. Obvious behavioral changes (odd shifts in behavior and emotional outbursts, which concern friends and family)
9. Depersonalization (devaluing self and others)
10. Inner emptiness (feeling empty and anxious; addictions develop)
11. Depression (feeling lost and uncertain; pessimistic outlook on the future)
12. Burnout syndrome (mental and physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening; medical attention becomes critical)
As psychologist Cary Cherniss notes, burnout begins with a mismatch between your work demands and your resources to deal with these demands (stress). It progresses to the immediate, short-term response of anxiety, tension and fatigue (individual strain). Then it sparks changes in attitude and behavior, such as greater cynicism and detachment (defensive coping). Paying attention to the early warning signs is key to staving off the more severe symptoms and full-on burnout.
What are the Causes of Burnout?
Both the workplace environment (external factors) and your individual traits and personal habits (internal factors) contribute to burnout.
In their book, The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter identify six factors in the workplace that fuel stress and trigger burnout. They are:
1. Work overload. Organizational restructuring, downsizing and budget cuts force individuals to work more with fewer resources. Billable hour requirements and other financial demands push lawyers to work longer even when they ought to take a break and recharge.
2. Lack of control over your work. Having autonomy — such as the freedom to determine your own priorities, set limits, and solve problems creatively — is critical for workplace motivation and engagement. When you have little or no control over which tactics and strategies you use, and when you execute them, it’s much harder to influence the outcome and derive satisfaction from the work you do.
3. Insufficient reward. Meaningful rewards come in a variety of forms. They include high pay, good benefits, recognition from peers and supervisors, and the feeling that you make a difference for your organization and your clients. In the high stakes legal industry, lawyers are harshly reprimanded and called out for mistakes and failures, while their diligence and successes are often taken for granted. If your work is not met with appropriate reward, burnout is more likely.
4. Lack of community. When there is minimal support from colleagues and supervisors, unresolved conflicts, extreme competitiveness, and intense isolation within your workplace, there is a higher propensity for cynicism and detachment.
5. Absence of fairness. Trust, openness and respect are necessary for a workplace to be perceived as fair. Inequities in the workload or pay structures, favoritism in promotions, biased evaluations, and failure to appropriately resolve disputes can lead to burnout.
6. Conflicting values. A mismatch between your organization’s values and your personal values makes it hard to align priorities and goals. Inconsistencies between the organization’s stated objectives and its daily actions also create frustration, discontentment and negativity.
Individual traits and habits
Common personality traits or tendencies among lawyers, which tend to cause burnout, are:
1. Perfectionism. Deadline-driven work, complex laws and rules, and ongoing changes in procedures and policies are some of the factors that encourage perfectionism. This involves setting impossibly high standards and rejecting any work product short of perfection. Unrealistic expectations, aversion to mistakes and the overvaluing of flawless performance can steer you toward burnout.
2. Conscientiousness. Prioritizing work and clients’ needs over self-care and personal commitments is prevalent among lawyers. The ability to make a difference can lead you to say yes to unreasonable requests and never-ending demands. Overtime, your conscientiousness and sense of service can begin to feel more like self-sacrifice, deprivation and martyrdom.
3. Achievement orientation. High achievers tend to have lower resilience to stress and setbacks. They obsess about meeting goals no matter the costs, and find it difficult to discuss their weaknesses and accept constructive feedback. Due to their strong desire to excel, they are generally hypercritical of their failures and fall easily into comparison traps.
4. Workaholism. Many lawyers work beyond the standard 40 hours per week, e.g. 50 to 80 hours, because they are workaholics. They have an extreme internal drive, are excessively hard workers, and are addicted to work. They work compulsively and excessively, beyond what is required to meet organizational goals or their own financial needs.
What are the Consequences of Burnout?
Burnout has far-reaching consequences on lawyers, their organizations and the industry as a whole. They include:
ABA Model Rule 1.1 (Competence), which is reflected in Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, instructs lawyers to provide competent representation, which “requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”
Rule 1.3 of the MRPC (Diligence), which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”
Rule 1.4 (a), MRPC (Communication) and the Model Rule, requires lawyers to promptly inform the client of key decisions and circumstances and obtain informed consent; reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish objectives; keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.
These and other ethics rules are more likely to be broken when you are experiencing fatigue, cynicism, detachment and hopelessness due to burnout. Your capacity to meet the demands of your profession and needs of your client are depleted by burnout.
Intense fatigue, for example, makes it much harder to keep up with the workload, track and meet deadlines, analyze and apply complex laws, and respond promptly to client’s questions and concerns. Your cognitive abilities and creative problem solving skills are not as sharp as they could be when you are burned out.
Excessive depersonalization of clients strips your ability to show compassion and address highly sensitive issues. Too much distancing from your work can lead you to overlook critical aspects of a client matter.
Feeling ineffective and helpless discourages you from exerting effort and exploring ways to solve problems. Your interest and focus wane when you think what you do makes little or no difference.
Emotional depletion and mental fatigue often lead to serious health problems. Burnout has been linked with physical consequences, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disorder, chronic pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and shorter life spans. Burnout is also associated with psychological effects, including depression and anxiety disorder.
Burnout can lead to withdrawal from family and friends as well as more interpersonal disputes. Work-family conflict, for instance, arises when obligations at work take time and energy away from family-related responsibilities. Negativity, lower energy, irritability and increased frustration affect your ability to maintain relationships with colleagues, team members, supervisors and partners.
Stress is a known contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. In a 2016 study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, researchers found that more than 1 in 5 lawyers said they felt their use of alcohol or other drugs was problematic at some point in their lives. The study found that attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice experience the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6%).
Alcohol or drugs is sometimes used to numb out, relax, or cope with work-related stressors. Some drugs, such as cocaine, also serve to increase mental alertness. Self-medicating to deal with burnout leads to drug addictions and substance abuse.
Dysfunctions and Reduced Productivity in the Workplace
Burnout and its related symptoms prevent you from getting the most important things done efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner. Cynicism or negative attitudes toward the organization, clients and colleagues reduces commitment to the workplace, job satisfaction, and quality of service. It also contributes to communication breakdown and low workplace morale. Emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue lower productivity and increase absenteeism and tardiness.
In addition, the growing sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment often causes burned out lawyers to quit their jobs, close their practice, or shift to another profession or vocation altogether. Heavy workloads, inadequate rewards and job dissatisfaction, which are part of the burnout culture, are among the reasons for high turnover rates. The organization incurs significant expenses when recruiting and training lawyers to replace those who leave.
Overwork Comes At a High Cost that Does Not, in the Long Run, Outweigh Any Possible Benefit
Prolonged exposure to stress (e.g. excessive workload), combined with the workplace environment and personal characteristics and tendencies, make lawyers vulnerable to burnout.
Burnout not only impairs your personal health and productivity, but also affects the outcomes of your organization in the form of subpar work product, decreased client satisfaction, and a higher propensity for legal errors and ethical missteps.
The high cost of overwork, which is a requisite for burnout, means you must take purposeful breaks daily, weekly, and yearly – no matter how busy you are. The heavier your caseload, the more recharging and refueling you need to avoid running on empty.
For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them).
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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.
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