Burnout and compassion fatigue are human responses to overwhelming emotional trauma and constant stress.
Lawyers care. That is why we make the sacrifices required to be successful, effective advocates for our clients. We work long hours, deal with adversity — often on a daily basis — and are often criticized for what we do. We are compassionate in that we feel the pain of others and want to use our skills to help.
However, lawyers can become overwhelmed by the trauma and stresses of their clients. In medical terms, this is known as compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma, and it is common among medical care professionals, first responders and lawyers.
Compassion fatigue symptoms include emotional and physical exhaustion, anger, irritability, addiction to mood-enhancing substances, career burnout, and impaired judgment. It occurs when lawyers are repeatedly exposed to clients who are struggling with trauma or stress over a prolonged period and aren’t properly trained to deal mentally and emotionally with these stressors.
The cumulative effect of witnessing secondhand stress, anxiety and depression day after day eventually leads to the symptoms of the condition.
Medical experts differentiate between burnout and compassion fatigue. Although the symptoms are similar, compassion fatigue results over a shorter period of time due to the intensity of the suffering. Not only do lawyers experience the symptoms, but their judgment tends to be impaired and they may blame others for their suffering. They often engage in counterproductive behavior such as quitting their law practice, having affairs, self-medicating and ignoring their health.
Steps for Handling Compassion Fatigue
Burnout and compassion fatigue are human responses to overwhelming tragedy and stress. There are steps you can take to avoid symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
- Understand the symptoms of compassion fatigue are natural and can be managed. We chose a profession that is both challenging and rewarding. It is the fact that we have compassion that can make us so fatigued and stressed. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t crash and burn. The key is being aware of the signs and taking proactive steps to address it.
- Talk to someone. This can be particularly challenging because lawyers suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue tend to isolate. Recognize this and crack through that barrier by reaching out to someone you can trust: a colleague, a lawyer coach or a mental health professional.
- Take more and longer vacations. Mother Theresa required her nuns to take a year off every five years. You have to take a break to recharge your batteries — and weekend vacations don’t count. Boundaries have been especially difficult to maintain during the pandemic. Avoid working vacations!
- Establish healthy routines, including sleep. Although life for lawyers is often far from routine, you must establish healthy habits, including sleep. If you have to go through a lengthy period of high-stress projects, be aware that your body and mind will pay the price. At least get proper nutrition, rest and exercise.
- Develop interests outside of your career. Find a hobby, go outside, join a social group. Travel. Get your mind off of the stressors of your work. Have at least one endeavor that is stress-free and brings you pleasure — preferably away from any screens.
- Assess your practice area and adjust if necessary. If you are dealing with high-stress clients and soul-sucking situations 24/7, consider changing your practice area or finding a less chaotic and stressful niche that aligns with your current practice area.
- Find experiences that give you joy and practice them daily. Keep a photo album nearby or on your device that you can pull out and remember fun times. Meditate for brief periods regularly during the day. Breathe!
- Belly laugh. Humor has powerful healing energy. Whether over a quick YouTube video or a feature-length comedy, laughing can reset your mood and energy.
- Connect with people you love. Every day, check in with your family, best friends and other loved ones. They may think you’ve lost your mind, but actually, you will save it.
Be the Hero in Your Story
When counseling people who are going through stressful and traumatic times, thinking of yourself as noble and heroic may give you a sense of hope and purpose. But keep in mind that heroes don’t control every aspect of their environment — it’s the way they react to the unknowable and unpredictable that makes them heroes. A hero’s superpowers are resilience and perseverance. Strive to be a hero instead of a victim: Take steps to support your own well-being and focus on the big-picture rewards of living a balanced life.
Also on Attorney at Work:
“Attorney Burnout: 4 Traps to Avoid” by Gray Robinson
“How Missing These 5 ‘Little’ Things Adds to Your Stress” by Jamie Spannhake
“Survival Skill No. 2 for Lawyers: Dealing With Chronic Stress” by Link Christin
Subscribe to Attorney at Work
Get really good ideas every day for your law practice: Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch (it’s free). Follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.