Burnout. It’s particularly prevalent this time of the year. It’s dark when you come into the office. And it’s dark when you leave.
For weeks and weeks, you’ve been striving hard to finish out the year, yet the work seems never-ending. It’s tough to feel a sense of accomplishment if you leave at the end of the day with more work than when you started.
Typical run-of-the-mill burnout might just mean you need a good night’s sleep and a day off. However, there is a more sinister and serious type of burnout that needs to be addressed.
It’s Called ‘Secondary Trauma’
When your job is to deal with people and their problems, the risk of burning out is high. Think doctors, nurses, social workers — and lawyers. Lawyers deal with people in the aftermath of some of the worst times in their lives: divorce, a custody battle, a personal injury claim, criminal defense … the list goes on and on.
We call it “secondary trauma” when you absorb the trauma of those you are helping.
I understand this now, but I was never aware of it when I was a practicing lawyer. The signs, though, are clear: In a profession with a higher rate of depression and substance use disorders than many others, lawyers burn out faster. And if you take your client’s problems home with you — especially in this culture of 24/7 connection — burnout lurks right around the corner.
Burned Out Lawyers Have Hit a Wall
They’ve lost their passion and joy. Professionals dealing with burnout or secondary trauma, ironically, can experience a complete reversion of their mission. They become negative and even aggressive. In their suffering, they can present as constantly angry or downright mean toward co-workers and clients. Their job has become a burden rather than an opportunity to do the good work that first inspired them to take this career path.
They’re behaving in the exact opposite way of how they should.
Lawyers feeling this way can do real harm, not only to those around them but also to themselves. For example, burnout can lead to professional liability, but most dangerously, unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-medicating through substance abuse.
Nine Steps for Beating Burnout
If you’re feeling like this, there are steps you can take to improve your situation. The big first step is identifying the problem. Once you have done so, here’s a road map to a healthier, happier year.
- Do not isolate. People tend to isolate when they burn out. They stop taking that 10 minutes in the morning to talk about the game last night, no longer join friendly lunches, and turn a closed door to any firmwide social events. They are so down, they can’t see past themselves. Try to re-engage with the things and people that once made work fun. The chatting, the laughter, even the good-natured commiserating about traffic or the weather are all a part of the social fabric of work that make it enjoyable. At the end of the day, these are the interactions that keep spirits high and motivation up.
- Declutter! This might seem like a humdrum piece of advice typical of self-help books, but a clear desk (or digital desktop) helps keep a clear mind. With a fresh start visually, you’ll have a calming atmosphere in which to tackle these other tips. Once you declutter and organize, you’ll be surprised at the improvements a clean environment can bring.
- Take a real vacation. When I say vacation, I do not mean a “staycation” used to catch up on household chores. How can you possibly come back to work refreshed if you’re working while off? In fact, this is the very reason so many of us don’t feel like we had a weekend or any time off at all. So, I say take a week (or two!) away. Disconnect. Consider going somewhere in nature where you literally can’t be reached on your device.
- Connect to greater life purposes. Some of the best advice I’ve received is: How do you want your soul to be remembered? No lawyer wants to be remembered as someone who did well at their job until they burned out and disappeared. Your life’s purpose can include more than just your career; if there’s something you feel called to do, work it into your life. Maybe that is working with children or animals as a volunteer on the weekends, following a childhood dream, or spending more time creating a happy family. When we know our purpose, we become helpful to those around us, and then, we can know we’re not the most important thing in the world. There is so much to be gained by realizing your place in the larger rhythm of life. Without this connection, so many of us become susceptible to self-pity and self-destruction.
- Gratitude. In a similar vein, gratitude gives us perspective. Saying, or writing, what you’re thankful for each day is more than just an exercise we do as kids around Thanksgiving. It can automatically generate positive thinking and endorphins. The effect does wonders. If you have trouble accessing this mindset, yoga, meditation or journaling are great ways to start.
- Promote yourself (but not too much). One of the reasons many people feel stuck in their job is because their value hasn’t been communicated lately. You might need a little confidence boost, and you can help your higher-ups know when you need it. Take some positive pride in how good you really are and don’t settle for less than you deserve — from yourself, or from anyone else. Don’t be taken for granted — perform well and make it known. When you’re being recognized, it makes these feelings of burnout and being stuck more manageable.
- Create new experiences and cultivate new skills. One reason I am saddened to see lawyers burned out is that the world truly can be their oyster in terms of opportunities. With a law school background, we can shift into new careers or different practice areas and create deepened contentment and joy for the rest of our lives. For example, pursuing a master’s degree can completely change your future. As a practicing lawyer you can move on to tax law, sports law, or even something like sports management — you name it. You can become a teacher or start a business. A law degree represents three solid years of daily hard and tangible work. You have a skillset and analytical ability that other people do not have. There are so many ways you can branch out. Give yourself permission to explore possibilities.
- Be kinder to yourself. The voice inside our own head is the loudest. The story we tell ourselves about the world is the truth, and unfortunately, when we’re burned out, that voice isn’t going to be constructive. If you’re struggling, I encourage you to seek help and support in changing this mindset.
- Treat yourself like a good friend who needs a break. Work toward reigniting the passion you began your career with.
Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com. Updated from an article originally published in December 2018.
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