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Last month, I kicked off our series on survival skills for lawyers 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.
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:
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:
In watching for the 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:
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.
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