Wake up. Check work phone. Put out work fires. Shower. Put on suit. Drive to court. Arrive at 7:45 AM. Present case. Leave courthouse. Drive to the office.
Plan for the morning. Respond to client. Respond to opposing counsel. Write updated court order. Email secretary. Respond to another opposing counsel. Respond to another client. Write portion of a brief. Buy lunch. Eat late lunch in office.
Make calls. Connect with colleagues. Prepare for deposition next day. Review deposition exhibits. Edit deposition outline. Respond to client. Respond to secretary. Leave office.
Commute for 45 minutes. Arrive home at 7:45 PM. Have late dinner. Spend an hour with family. Check work emails. Fall asleep.
For many days, week, months, and years this is what my schedule looked like.
The tasks varied from day-to-day, but the pressure and stress remained the same. My energy was often depleted at the end of the day. Forget about trying to squeeze in exercise, especially if I had a trial coming up. I had to perform and as a result my well-being took the backseat. Aside from being exhausting, my schedule sometimes would impact my efficacy.
The Occupational Burnout
Unfortunately this type of schedule is very common among attorneys. For some, the work day is even longer. As the workplace demands, pressures, and expectations continue to impact our lives, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken a more serious examination of the phenomenon of “burnout.”
While many professionals have experienced burnout well before 2019, the World Health Organization took the step of redefining “burnout” and providing more detailed guidance on it – and actually recognizing it as a syndrome.
To provide some context, if there is some injury, disease, or illness that we encounter in life it is recorded and coded by the WHO in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Basically, anything from our birth to our death that relates to our health is included in the ICD.
In the 10th edition of the ICD, burn-out was briefly defined as “a state of vital exhaustion.” That was it.
In May 2019 the WHO finally made more powerful strides to increase awareness related to occupational burnout. In the 11th edition of the ICD, the WHO coded a new definition of burnout under “Problems associated with employment or unemployment” under code number QD85 in Chapter 24 of the ICD. This updated definition provides clearer guidance on how occupational burnout can be detected.
As defined in the ICD 11th edition, burnout:
“[I]s a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
As you can see from this definition, occupational burnout stems from chronic workplace stress.
As attorneys chronic stress sometimes becomes part of our lives. But it doesn’t have to. With such high levels of chronic stress, it is no wonder that as a profession we abuse alcohol at rates that are 3-5 times higher than the general population. Almost 30% of us report struggling with some level of depression. We are also incredibly sleep-deprived and often fail to engage in sufficient physical activity or healthy eating habits.
The Burnout Spectrum
Fortunately for us, chronic stress is something that we can learn to manage, and in order to avoid burnout, we must see it as our duty to do so. Unmanaged chronic stress that leads to burnout will affect our performance and will limit our ability to truly enjoy the work that we do.
Also fortunately for us, we do not have to do it alone. The first step is to understand where you fall in the burnout spectrum. Having a clear picture of where you currently stand will help you see what effort is necessary to avoid burnout or come out of it.
A very helpful tool to do this is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) that I have used to help a lot of my fellow attorneys and high performance coaching clients. It is the most commonly used tool to self-assess whether you are experiencing burnout or are close to it. While people tend to respond differently to stress, this self-assessment tool provides some general questions that have a broad enough range to give you a good idea of where you are.
If you find out that you are experiencing “high-level burnout,” it is going to be really important for you to consult your doctor, a mental health professional, or counselor to further assist you in managing any chronic stress that you may be experiencing.
Three Suggestions to Manage Burnout
As some preliminary support, here are 3 suggestions that I continue to use effectively to help fellow colleagues manage and avoid occupational burnout:
No. 1: Task Inventory List.
One of the most important strategies you can do initially to manage burnout is to do an inventory and prepare a list of all the tasks and assignments that you are responsible for on a day-to-day basis. Then create 3 columns, the first one titled “Automate,” the second titled “Delegate,” and the third one titled “Eliminate.”
The goal is to then go through every single task and put it in one of the columns so that you either automate it, delegate it, or simply stop doing it. A lot of times burnout stems from doing a lot of tasks that we simply do not need to be doing ourselves. With such powerful advances in technology there are many tasks that can now be automated and you do not have to do them manually. Also, focus on engaging in the most high-level tasks and delegate any tasks like copying or preparing exhibits to your secretary or paralegal.
If you are a solo practitioner, you can find online support from websites like www.onelegal.com that assist with tasks such as court filings, process serving, delivery of courtesy copies, document searches and retrieval, subpoena preparation and more. I have found that my clients sometimes have a challenging time letting go of some tasks, but look at it this way, your health and holistic wellness depend on it. The future of your business depends on it and more importantly, you owe it to yourself and your clients to represent them at the most effective levels possible, and this will help you get there.
No. 2: Focus on Recovery.
As a trial and appellate attorney I learned that while stress was part of the job, chronic stress did not have to be. The key is to find times, even if they are in short spurts, to bring the level of stress back down to a level 1 or 0 if possible. There are many things you can implement at your workplace that need only take a few minutes at a time, including breathing exercises, meditation, taking a full lunch, doing micro-exercises, having a quick call with a loved one, listening to a positive affirmation or mantra.
These short, no-stress activities can help reduce the overall level of stress we experience throughout the day, especially if we engage in them several times a day. It is also very important, however, that you engage in longer periods of low-level to no stress. Nature tends to bring some of the most powerful benefits, so if at all possible, on the weekends schedule a long hike, a trip to the ocean, a walk in the park. Longer periods of exercise are also incredibly helpful and while the Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, even 75 minutes of more vigorous aerobic activity is incredibly beneficial. Broken down, that comes out to about 10 minutes per day of exercise.
No. 3: Develop an Effective Calendaring System.
Most of the time our day will control us instead of us controlling our day. One important strategy is to develop a calendaring system that includes not only your professional deadlines, but your personal, non-work related activities as well. Whether it is a date night with your partner, a family member’s birthday, a fun weekend activity, a dentist appointment, time at the gym, dinner time, a trip to the grocery store, these are all activities that should be included in the same calendar as your professional calendar. If you are concerned about making your private life public, you can create private notes on your calendar that no one else can see, especially if you use Outlook or Google Calendars. I recommend this as well if you use a regular appointment book, have it all in there.
Not doing this will often cause us to unnecessarily clutter our minds. There is no need for us to do this and this alone can help us breathe a little better because we know that we are less likely to miss a professional or personal deadline or activity – which is often a key stressor that we experience.
My hope for you is that with these tools you are able to restore yourself. Feeling exhausted and drained does not have to be the norm. While we do not talk about it in the legal profession, having self-compassion is perfectly acceptable. When it comes to your well-being, develop a long-term perspective and give yourself permission to nurture yourself and develop the highest levels of professional and personal fulfillment. Best of luck my fellow colleague.