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How to prevent burnout in the legal profession

Legal work has always been synonymous with high levels of stress, where large workloads, long hours, client demands, tight deadlines and a lack of work/life balance all combine to create a high-pressure environment that’s conducive to burnout, writes Stuart Taylor.

user iconStuart Taylor 11 July 2019 Big Law
Stuart Taylor
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A recent study by Executive Health Solutions has found legal professionals are battling plummeting physical and mental health, raising concerns for the industry’s wellbeing.

The report, released this week, found lawyers have fallen from first place to seventh place in overall health, and from 12th place to 16th place in mental health. It revealed that approximately 50 per cent of the legal industry worked more than 60 hours per week in the last financial year, and that lawyers also ranked the worst in many physical health markers, including cholesterol levels.

Whilst these findings may well be confronting, they are nevertheless unsurprising. Unfortunately, it is all too common to miss the signs of burnout until they’re already there, but the long-term consequences of “overdoing it” can be damaging to our work life — resulting in a lack of focus and engagement, poor time management, and heightened worry and anxiety.


What’s more, when unaddressed, workplace stress has a tendency to impact our personal lives, too. Lawyers are prime candidates for emotional “spillover”, where the stress they experience at work can overflow and impact their personal life, at first affecting their ability to relax at home. Over time, spillover can give way to “crossover”, where higher exhaustion levels begin to impact on workplace performance, eventually leading to burnout. This was confirmed in our own study released in 2018 which revealed that fatigue was the highest factor related to burnout or, inversely, to resilience.

The power of resilience in business is that it acts as a buffer in particularly stressful or high-intensity occupations, preparing and enabling you to maintain balance in your life, protect your wellbeing and sustain high performance at work.

The good news for lawyers is that resilience is not innate, but rather a learnt competence that can be purposefully built and skillfully maintained. In our 2018 study, we found professional services had only average resilience but were very responsive to interventions aimed at building resilience. This means that legal professionals who invest in building their own personal resilience are more likely to be able to master stress and prevent the onset of burnout.

Firstly, it’s imperative for lawyers to establish boundaries between their work and home life. This not only positively benefits their personal life and mental health, but also provides the much-needed performance boost that comes from rest and overall life enjoyment. To achieve this, try exercising the following:

1. Funnel negative stress into something productive. Too often, we reserve our worst behaviour for those we care about the most. Going for a run or cooking dinner for the family can be healthy ways to channel the negative energy boiling under the surface and avoid any unpleasant outbursts.
2. Catch, check, then change. One of the most effective things we can learn is how to reframe our thinking to avoid “thinking traps” that lead to unhelpful responses and emotional spillover. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your attitude into a more constructive and beneficial response.
3. Express gratitude. Take time every evening to appreciate and celebrate the positive things that happened in the day. The simple act of recalling and magnifying the positives will mean your focus is no longer on deadlines and work stress, allowing you to channel your energy towards hobbies or personal relationships.

To build on this, lawyers who invest in developing their own personal resilience are more likely to be able to master stress and prevent the onset of mental health problems. While it can be easy to let your personal wellbeing fall by the wayside in times of stress, it’s important to establish some non-negotiables to keep yourself on the right track.

1. Engage with family and friends. Take the time to maintain healthy and emotionally stimulating relationships outside of work and explore ways to connect with people in meaningful ways. For example, go for a nice walk after work or eat a meal with friends or family as often as possible.
2. Get into a structured sleep habit. Aim for seven to eight hours a night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on the weekend). A good sleep routine can be a welcome boost to those who continually function at a fast pace and high-performance level.
3. Divide your day into segments. Allocate time for certain work tasks, time to move your body and time for mental breaks.
4. Find a way to be active every day. You can stretch, stand up or take a walk around the block. This is also a great tool to help you refocus. Just 30 minutes a day can work wonders for your brain and increase your resilience long-term.
5. When in doubt, breathe out. Controlled breathing can help you improve your cognitive performance, effectively manage stress and help you become more resilient by improving concentration, increasing creativity and improving productivity to help you power through.

The demands faced by legal professionals are unlikely to change, but it’s both in spite of and because of this that lawyers must safeguard their mental wellbeing. By implementing resilience practices in their own lives, lawyers can pave the way for productivity and sustainability in the workplace, which in turn produces greater business outcomes.

Stuart Taylor (pictured) is the founder and CEO of Springfox, a provider of evidence-based resilience programs for professionals and organisations.