Toxic productivity and how to tackle it in the workplace

Angus Lyon examines the signs of 'burnout', what it means and why you should be mindful of the competing work and home-life demands solicitors and staff at law firms may be facing.

Achieving, and maintaining, a good work-life balance has always been a challenge for many in the legal profession.

Managing a heavy workload whilst dealing with family and personal responsibilities can be tough.

Rising pressure

Just over a year ago, I was given Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by a ‘secret Santa’.

Murakami is a fanatical runner and I, the most average of park runners, was inspired to begin preparations to run the local half-marathon.

By gradually building up from my 10k runs, I thought I would be ready by the time it came around; what could possibly go wrong?

I was over-enthusiastic and ran too far too soon. I developed plantar fasciitis (a medical term for very sore feet). I put too much pressure on my feet – it took a year before I could comfortably begin running again.

When I was partner at a law firm, there were many pressures I faced.

Much like my marathon training, this became too much to manage. I experienced burnout.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) define burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". 

WHO says it is characterised 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
  • reduced professional efficacy

Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, has been researching burnout for the last 40 years, and her work has informed much of the current thinking on the subject.

She and her colleague, Michael Leiter, identified six areas of workplace life that directly impact occupational stress:


When job demands exceed the resources, including time, available to fulfil the requirements, the likelihood of burnt-out employees increases.


A sense of personal control in the workplace is vital to avoid occupational stress.


Insufficient reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout.


This includes issues of conflict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team. The overall quality of social interaction at work is key.


It’s important that decisions affecting the workforce are perceived as being fair and equitable.


The factors that originally attracted people to their jobs need to be nurtured – they are the connection between the worker and the workplace.

Conflicting priorities

If you're a firm leader, you should consider the workforce you manage and take into account how your lawyers are being affected by the huge adjustments most have had to make over the last couple of years.

Once a fortnight, I answer calls made to a helpline operated by LawCare, an independent charity working to promote good mental health and wellbeing in legal workplaces.

Many of the callers reported being expected to perform minor miracles – remaining highly productive whilst coping with significant changes at home, caring for ill loved ones and bereavement.

The phrase ‘toxic productivity’ has gained traction recently. It refers to situations where productivity and profit are prioritized at the expense of the health and wellbeing of staff.

Revisiting Maslach’s six factors, if workload becomes overload, a sense of control is lost.

Reward starts to feel inadequate and the community you would usually draw on for support is fragmented by home working.

Fairness is eroded as staff feel forced into working in ways they feel less comfortable with, and toxic productivity occurs.

There are many law firm leaders who already have the wellbeing of their people as a top priority in their business strategies, and who have been taking proactive steps to improve their mental health and wellbeing support.

But you should still be on the lookout for the warning signs of burnout.

Continue to think of what more you could do to keep you and your colleagues healthy.

Find out more

There are organisations who offer support, resources and advice, both for firm leaders and for staff, on mental health and wellbeing at work.

LawCare provides a range of resources on mental health and staff wellbeing in legal workplaces.

Explore what support is available if you're experiencing stress or mental ill-health


A version of this article first appeared in the Property Section, our community for residential and commercial property practitioners.

Join the Property Section for support and guidance, including Property in Practice magazine, events and case law commentary.