Last month, I kicked off our series on survival skills for lawyers, and stress by discussing emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back from the inevitable disappointments and obstacles encountered in practicing law. In this post, we’ll discuss ways to deal with chronic stress.
The Risks of Chronic Lawyer Stress and Professional Burnout
Lawyers are especially susceptible to professional burnout.
Everyone complains about being “burned out” at some time in their work life. But professional burnout goes beyond simply being overtired and needing time off. While not strictly a medical condition, professional burnout is a serious and tangible issue that can make you physically ill. Unless it’s dealt with aggressively — through therapy, clinical work, and lifestyle changes — it can put your career and your life at risk. The more it eats away at you, the more likely it will do irreparable damage.
Burnout is the state of constant frustration and stress experienced by professionals in people-oriented services. It’s characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense that nothing you do makes any difference.
Professional burnout was first noted in the 1970s among doctors and nurses, where the long-term effects of providing care for others in a high-stress environment led to an extreme form of physical and mental exhaustion. In essence, those called on to care for others lost their ability to feel empathy for their patients. Instead, they resented them, acting in ways that conveyed indifference and anger.
Though many don’t think of lawyers this way, the practice of law is one of the “caring professions” that deals with people one-on-one, helping them through high-stakes situations. Much of the work we do has life-altering consequences for our clients. In practicing law, the problems of your clients surround you 24/7.
Lawyers are particularly sensitive to burnout because:
- We suffer “secondary trauma” while dealing with the stress, anger, frustration, and emotions of our clients.
- We often have a sense of perfectionism, that everything has to be exactly right, or we risk absolute failure.
- We feel our clients are never truly pleased with our work.
- We must sometimes act in a way that isn’t aligned with our core values.
- The job often requires extremely long hours that are not physically, mentally, or emotionally sustainable.
Building Attorney Stress-Busting Survival Skills
Lawyers can avoid professional burnout by developing healthy ways to cope with stress. Without doing so, we risk overwhelming our bodies. Too much stress results in all kinds of physical manifestations — ulcers, headaches, stomach aches, weight gain, heart disease. Treating these symptoms is merely a Band-Aid that doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is stress.
It’s important to remember that stress is a personal response to an external stimulus. It’s not the stimulus that causes stress; instead, the stress lies in your body and mind’s response to it. Therefore, we are, at some level, in control of our stress. This is why “stress-busting” habits such as exercise or meditation are so effective. With stress, you are dealing with your body’s “flight or fright fight” reaction, training yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally to stretch your ability to handle a difficult situation. As we explored last month, improving your emotional resilience can help you deal with stress.
Here are some preventive steps you can take to deal with stress and avoid burnout:
- Know yourself, and listen when your body tells you something isn’t right.
- Look for signs of excessive stress, and take time to de-stress.
- Set goals that are realistic — not perfect.
- Be mindful of how you expend your energy — both emotionally and physically.
- Find meaningful activity outside of work that helps you enjoy life and relax.
- Take vacations that reinvigorate you.
- Establish a weekly exercise routine.
- Take note of how and when you drink, eat, or use prescription medication. If you notice a pattern of frequently turning to substances or other unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating, gambling) to reduce stress, you need to cultivate better coping skills.
- Set boundaries and learn to say no.
- Take sleep seriously and get in those eight hours.
- Find a professional mentor or therapist who can help support your goal of living a balanced, healthy life.
The Warning Signs of Professional Burnout
In watching for signs of burnout, the key is to learn early in your career to pay attention to how you feel about your work and your work environment. We all have bad days, but if you experience any of these warning signs on a consistent basis, you may be on the path to professional burnout:
- Ending every workday feeling highly stressed.
- Feeling a knot in the stomach on Sunday night.
- Disengagement from work, family, friends, and health.
- Feeling alienated and tired, which may also mean anxious, depressed, exhausted, ineffective, overcommitted, guilty, unable to say no, or even to the point of giving up hope.
- Experiencing the physical consequences of stress: ulcers, upset stomach, headaches, backaches, colitis, lack of concentration, rage, even a heart attack or stroke.
Unfortunately, people don’t often connect their physical symptoms with the stress of their job. If you get to the point of burnout, you’re in danger of making a horrible mistake personally or professionally. Or you may get to the point of needing to leave the profession because you truly have hit a wall. The good news is you don’t have to suffer in silence. Working with a qualified therapist and doctor can make a difference, and addressing the issue immediately improves your chances of overcoming burnout.
When burnout steals your energy and passion, it can be a scary experience. However, gaining a little more balance in work can save not just your career, but your life.
Disclosure: Caron Treatment Centers offers recovery programs for legal professionals that address the unique pressures and demands lawyers and their families face.