Burnout refers to a state of mental and physical exhaustion, coupled with cynicism (depersonalization) and inefficacy (reduced personal accomplishment). Although several factors contribute to burnout, overwork is most directly related to exhaustion, which is the key element of the syndrome. Jam-packed schedules, filing deadlines, client revenue requirements, and lack of boundaries are some of the reasons lawyers are prone to work overload.
Taking purposeful breaks from work is not a panacea for burnout. It is, however, an essential step to avoiding and alleviating the syndrome, regardless of the multifaceted causes that include more than work overload.
Common Excuses for Not Taking Breaks
A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee paid vacation days and paid holidays. Yet even those who get paid vacation days do not use it all. According to a Project: Time Off report, a majority 52 percent of employees in the United States reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year. The study adds that in 2017, the average American took just 17 days of paid vacation.
Common excuses for not taking breaks — especially extended vacations lasting at least a week — include:
1. I don’t need it
When you are functioning, checking items off your priorities list, and getting through your day, you may conclude that you don’t need time off. You might not realize that you could be a lot more productive and effective if you took a break and then came back rested and refreshed.
This excuse is based on fear of using up time off when you’re not in crisis mode and could need it later due to a real crisis.
2. I have too much to do
Whether you are a solo practitioner with your own practice or a partner at a big law firm, you have difficulty getting away from work when you feel there is too much to do. Lack of delegation of tasks and responsibilities or failure to get appropriate support often leads to counterproductive overwork.
The fear is that the business will cease to run or succeed or that your team cannot function without you. You might also worry that your practice and colleagues may very well be able to do without you, even if it’s just for a few days.
The Project: Time Off study reported that employees with concerns that they would seem less dedicated or even replaceable if they took a vacation were less likely to use all their vacation time (61% leave time unused, compared to 52% overall). Those who felt their workload was too much to take time off were also less likely to use all their vacation time (57% to 52%), as were those who felt there was a lack of coverage or that no one else could do their job (56% to 52%).
3. I can’t afford it
Billable hour requirements or client revenue goals is a primary reason for not using vacation days or time off. For a solo lawyer, taking a vacation often means missing out on new business opportunities to add to the cash flow. Lawyers at larger firms also have similar concerns due to stiff competition with other lawyers and firms. The fear of losing prospects and clients causes many to stay close to the office.
Planning for a vacation might also bring financial worries, especially when it involves rest and relaxation at a retreat, sightseeing in exotic places, bringing your family, or other types of getaways that are quite expensive.
4. I don’t want to lose momentum
When you’re in the midst of a major work project or you’re about to start one, it can be hard to step away from it. You get accustomed to the high stress and don’t know how to relax and stop obsessing about the goals and objectives you want to meet. Defaulting to old habits and routines around work often feels more comfortable than exercising relaxation skills that have not been used in a long time.
There is fear that taking a break means quitting or giving up. There are also concerns that a mountain of work will be waiting for you to clear out when you get back. You might even feel lost and confused when you take a break from work and have no urgent action items or measurable results to consider.
Ways to Overcome Excuses for Not Taking Breaks
Excuses for not taking breaks can be overcome with these practices:
1. Prioritize self-care
To boost employee productivity and well being, organizations need to encourage vacations and even make it mandatory. Individuals also need to prioritize self-care and recognize that burnout prevention involves taking the time to recharge.
Use time blocking methods to get your most important work done within a set time frame, instead of allowing it to expand without limits. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.
Avoid unnecessary, agendaless meetings that only involve information sharing that can be otherwise accomplished through more efficient means. Declare certain hours as quiet, focus time when you should not be interrupted and other hours as time to have discussions, answer questions and address concerns.
Set appropriate boundaries. If your boss approaches you with another project, remind her of your list of priorities and discuss which should take precedence. Either she will tell you which is most important or find someone else to take on the new project. Respectfully push back if she tells you that they are all priorities. Ask for specific due dates instead of settling for “ASAP.” Taking on too much will backfire in the form of missed target completion dates, poor quality work, and inadvertent errors.
Taking extended time off to recharge can create its own stress for lawyers, who are used to hustling and working hard. Yet taking a break is necessary for sustaining progress and creating desired results over the long haul, as well as boosting productivity in the short term.
Working obsessively and compulsively does not necessarily make you productive and can actually lead to burnout. Treat self-care as a vital component of being productive and sustaining diligence.
2. Plan ahead for your time off
There will always be more work for you to do, no matter how hard you push through and try to clear things off your desk. Instead of waiting for the perfect time to take a vacation – when all the to-dos are done, all files are closed, and all deadlines are met (which never happens) – plan ahead for it. Treat it like an important appointment or commitment that must not be broken. Just be practical about when you take it and how long it will last.
Ask yourself what you need to do to make it happen by a set date. The first step is choosing your most important and urgent projects to tackle or complete before you go on vacation. Use the priority matrix (urgent + important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; not urgent + not important). Decide on which ball you can drop for the time being and pick up later or drop altogether.
The next step involves notifying your clients about when you will be on a break; whether you will be responding to inquiries and, if not, who will be in charge of responses; the status of their case; and how time-sensitive issues that may arise while you’re gone will be handled.
Another step is to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others who can do the job well if not better than you. If you’re a solo lawyer with no full-time staff, you can turn to a reliable independent contractor or virtual assistant to handle certain types of tasks, such as responding to general inquiries.
Provide your assistant with a case list containing client contact information, status of the matter, and potential issues that may arise. Have an outlet (e.g. telephone call or email) for them to reach you in real emergencies and define parameters for what constitutes an emergency.
Solo practitioners can seek help from another solo lawyer to cover emergencies and issues that cannot wait to be handled until they return. Lawyers with colleagues can keep their team members informed of ongoing projects. Do necessary prework, such as drafting the legal discussion for a motion that can be readily completed by another qualified person who has access to the client files.
Taking things off your plate doesn’t mean you won’t be needed within your practice or by your organization. It simply frees you up to focus on more urgent and significant projects that better leverage your skills, expertise and time.
3. Shift your money mindset
The classic 40-hour work week and the pressure to spend more than that at work have trained lawyers to measure their value accordingly. However, true value does not lie in the time you spend on a matter. Rather, it results from the unique benefits you bring and the positive difference you make with your service.
To fully unplug and recharge, you will have to refrain from taking on new cases, performing consultations or engaging in client work while you’re on an extended break. A short-term revenue loss may result, but you will make up for it after you return with renewed energy created by a much needed break.
You also don’t have to go in debt to enjoy a vacation. Choose the one that is right for you and fits your budget. You could just spend a few days exploring recreational sites, eating at the much-talked-about restaurant, hanging out at the nearby cafe or going for a long nature walk in your own town. You could stay at home and read a good book or relax on your couch watching your favorite movie. The point is to stay away from the office, put work aside, and ignore emails and social media.
4. Systematize your law practice
Law firms need to systematize their processes and procedures so the absence of one lawyer does not dramatically affect business operations and client service. Systematization is often overlooked by solo lawyers and small firm lawyers who tend to keep most of their knowledge in their heads instead of in their business records.
Systems may include an office manual documenting the various business functions at your firm, a detailed checklist for your most common types of cases, and template letters for following up with prospects and closing out client files.
The key systems you need to set up, consistently use, and extensively document include:
Operations management system. e.g. setting up operations procedures and administrative processes around business functions, instead of around people.
Calendaring, scheduling and tickler system. e.g. recording important hearings and meetings and setting reminders for due dates and deadlines.
Client file management system. e.g. providing steps for running conflicts checks, opening new client files, closing files, and destroying old files.
Client communication system. e.g. having a policy for responding to telephone calls, emails and other communications from clients; providing a script for resolving a billing dispute.
Client service and retention system. e.g. creating templates for repetitive letters and emails; providing step-by-step procedures and checklists for routine matters; preparing written instructions and answers to FAQs for clients.
Client attraction and acquisition system. e.g. implementing a specific process for responding to online and telephone inquiries from prospects; developing a policy for post-consultation and post-meeting follow-ups with prospects.
Case management system. e.g. using online software like MyCase or even an Excel spreadsheet to manage cases and track the status of each.
Billing and invoicing system. e.g. using Quickbooks or other financial software to monitor income and expenses and automate invoicing to clients.
Firm management system. e.g. providing a written office manual that contains contact information for key personnel; location and account numbers for business and trust accounts; passwords for computer and voice mail; location of business documents such as leases, service contracts, and business credit cards.
Contingency management system. e.g. creating a succession and transition plan or an emergency handbook for dealing with unexpected practice interruptions.
Systems help you prepare for practice interruptions, whether due to a planned vacation or due to unexpected illness.
Why You Need to Take Breaks
Taking purposeful breaks creates the following benefits:
1. Increase Engagement at Work
Psychologists Christina Maslach, PhD, and Michael Leiter, PhD define people’s relationships to their jobs as a “continuum between the negative experience of burnout and the positive experience of engagement,” in their article, Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement.
These pioneers in burnout research note there are three interrelated dimensions of the burnout-engagement continuum: exhaustion-energy, cynicism-involvement and inefficacy-efficacy. Burnout and engagement are opposites. Engagement is an energetic state of active involvement and increased efficacy.
When job demands exceed your resources and depletes your capacity, you are more prone to burnout. Resting, recharging and refueling between particularly stressful events – such as meeting a deadline or arguing at trial – helps you avoid burnout and better engage with your work.
2. Enhance Multifaceted Skills
Breaks are necessary for deep thinking and reflection. Real productivity does not come from taking action all the time and operating on autopilot. By stepping away from work, you are more likely to gain a fresh perspective on challenging projects and develop new ideas for complex problems.
Exhaustion results in memory loss, lack of focus, and reduced executive function and self-regulation skills. By re-energizing your brain with necessary breaks, you become more focused, respond better to stress, and make smarter decisions. You also develop your creativity, analytical ability and problem-solving acumen.
3. Improve Productivity
Working harder and longer leads to diminishing returns on output and progress, which interferes with goal accomplishment and quality of work.
One Stanford University study , The Productivity of the Working Hours, published in The Economic Journal, found that once you work up to 50 hours in a week, you hit diminishing marginal returns. Your output rises at a decreasing rate and falls to almost nothing after 55 hours. In the long run, excessive work hours are counterproductive.
Maintaining a sustainable workload not only reduces your vulnerability to burnout, but also gives you more energy to do high-quality work and provide diligent representation.
4. Learn to Relax
The intense work culture in Japan led to the invention of the term, Karōshi, in 1978 to refer to the rising number of people suffering from heart attacks and strokes attributed to overwork. The term was used to describe “occupational sudden death” and translates to “death by overwork.”
In general, lawyers are used to dealing with high-pressure situations and gain their self-identity and self-worth from their work. When your life is organized and structured around your work, it’s a big struggle to step away from it. Learning and practicing how to relax is critical to alleviating tension, slowing down and avoiding burnout.
Taking a break helps you recognize that your work is separate from you. It is not the same as quitting or being lazy, but is an active process of reflection and learning. Sometimes you have to push hard, but you risk getting burned out when you operate in hyperactive mode all the time. Developing your relaxation skills helps you to mindfully manage and combat stress.
Taking Breaks is Necessary to Avoiding Burnout
A break from work can include mini-breaks throughout the day (e.g. 5 minutes for every 25 minutes of work; one-hour lunch break), a weekend off or three-day weekend; an extended vacation lasting at least one week; or a sabbatical or leave lasting at least one month.
In a given day, purposeful breaks may involve alone time (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book); interaction with nature (e.g. looking out the window; sitting on a park bench); social connections (e.g. chatting with a colleague; having lunch with a good friend); relaxation (daydreaming, sketching, listening to music); and movement (taking a walk, tai chi, stretching, doing jumping jacks).
Rest through purposeful breaks is essential to improving engagement in the workplace, which is the opposite of burnout. By letting go of the excuses and instead implementing steps to take time off, lawyers will be better equipped to avoid burnout and keep the fire in their belly to do their best work.
For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork.
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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