Is work burning you out? 10 strategies to regain your wellbeing
Legal professionals are at high risk for mental health issues and burnout when enduring extended periods of stress at work.
This stress can be amplified by other forms of pressure, such as reluctance to ask for help when needed (which results in doing more work than necessary), as well as external pressure such as cost-of-living crisis.
Legal professionals’ mental wellbeing is a global concern: fatigue, aches, anxiety and changes in sleeping patterns are noticeable signs that stress may be leading towards burnout.
And yet, these warning signs frequently fly under the radar for many lawyers.
Noticing early signs is a step towards taking action.
As the culture around overworking is slowly evolving in the legal profession, this article suggests 10 things you can do to start regaining your wellbeing.
How ‘temporary’ has your stress really been?
Burnout is a recognised occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
Its primary symptoms are being emotionally exhausted by and disengaged from work.
The latest research into wellbeing in the legal profession shows that 69% of lawyers have experienced mental health issues (whether clinically or self-diagnosed) and that lawyers are at high risk for burnout.
Signs of burnout can differ from person to person, as individual thresholds for coping with stress vary significantly.
However, most people who experience burnout retrospectively recognise a period when they started feeling less ‘themselves’.
And yet, because the attempts to manage stress are a daily moving target, and the fear of being seen as unable to cope can be high, lawyers who display early signs of burnout tend to dismiss and hope their stress is ‘temporary’ and something they can ‘manage’.
Still, when you look back at when stress moved from OK and energising to unhealthy, how ‘situational’ has your stress really been?
Sabotaging early signs by clinging to the honeymoon period
For burnout to occur, an initial honeymoon period with a job must have taken place.
The duration of the honeymoon is personal but the common starting point is having made a significant emotional investment: ‘I’ve given my job 110%’.
The romanticised memory of the golden period after you finally got your ‘dream job’ may, for example, make prolonged over-working bearable and obfuscate the early signs of burnout-inducing stress.
The long-tail of your honeymoon period may also magnify the detachment and sense of demotivation (‘everything I do now is just nonsense and a waste of time’) that may flood the present.
Reflecting on your expectations is a key step towards the self-awareness that will lead to taking action.
It will allow you to connect the dots to answer the question: ‘What happened to me?’
What can you do if you notice early signs of burnout?
When you find work to be overwhelming and your mood starts affecting your life both at and outside of work, the following 10 strategies can make the difference:
1. Pay attention to your mood
Start noticing – by journaling, for example – your shifts in mood and reactions, and ask for feedback from family, friends and trusted colleagues.
Asking for help when we need help is part of the skillsets of a lawyer.
A lot of support is available both inside and outside the workplace – from GP and self-referral centres to support groups, charities, online resources and specialised professionals.
Most people are receptive to a request for help.
2. Educate yourself
People are not born with brilliant self-awareness and solid introspection. We develop these skills.
You can become more aware by reading and discussing your coping mechanisms, what triggers you, and what you need to bounce back.
With reflection, you can come to understand both the underlying internal (for example, personality) and external (such as work culture) factors that contribute to your stress.
3. Reframe your perfectionism
Adjust the way you look at your perfectionism as a lawyer from being an unhelpful factor that fuels anxiety to being one of your strengths.
Analytical thinking will help you to rigorously examine when, for example, you put too much pressure on yourself.
What were your expectations in the first place?
Also, use your high standards to create a routine that includes relaxation time, good sleeping hours and physical exercise.
4. Explore what you can let go
Consider if there are any battles you can drop – or whether you are fighting against something you cannot change, including people you cannot change.
Cultivating acceptance is a life journey, but many little ‘let-it-go’ realisations can act as catalysts for major ‘let-it-go’ realisations.
5. Focus on building stronger boundaries
Setting boundaries has two dimensions:
- better time management and finding ways to work smarter: To make time for downtime, start with small changes and easy wins: set out-of-office hours, turn off notifications on your mobile, stick to a realistic time to end your working day, and consider delegating more
- reflecting on why setting boundaries (and saying ‘no’ when the option is entirely available) is hard. Lacking effective boundaries is not a fault or a weakness. It is far more likely linked to your boundaries not having been respected for a long time
Plenty if you can, but every little bit helps. Every incremental increase (time or frequency) counts.
Set realistic expectations; the last thing you need is further pressure to deliver feeding a sense that you ‘can’t do it’. Reward yourself for the times you try or are able to do it instead!
7. Practise expressing gratitude
A lot of your perceptions can start shifting when you see the abundance in yourself and in the life you have built for yourself.
Stress, crisis, overwork and feeling overwhelmed calls for huge doses of self-kindness: sprinkle it daily.
8. Take time to be mindful
Cultivate mindfulness to be present and mitigate the tendency to compare your skills with others, especially the ones you idealise and who, from the outside, seem to ‘manage it all’.
9. Look after your physical health
Eat well and get support to increase your physical care, whether it’s from a professional, an accountability partner or even a good app.
Notice your caffeine and sugar intake and how they impact changes in your sleeping patterns.
10. Spend more time with the elderly
Being immersed in wisdom and sharing time with people who typically have plenty of time is healing.
If combined with walks in green spaces, it’s doubly healing.