What are the leading causes and challenges of burnout among lawyers, and how do they differ from other high-stress professions?

What are the leading causes and challenges of burnout among lawyers, and how do they differ from other high-stress professions?

What are the leading causes and challenges of burnout among lawyers, and how do they differ from other high-stress professions?

Most lawyers experience some degree of burnout at one point in their career.

The prevalence of burnout in lawyers is higher than in the medical profession. So, it is important to understand the unique factors that lawyers face to support lawyers through burnout prevention and recovery.

Here are some of the common individual and systemic workplace factors that have been found to contribute to the high prevalence of lawyers experiencing burnout:

Entrance into the Profession

    Law school entails running one marathon after another. The competitive nature of law students, excessive workloads and time pressures, tend to exert a huge amount of pressure.

    Research carried out in Australia by Nelk and colleagues found high levels of psychological distress among law students when compared to the general population and medical students. Thirty five percent of law students reported high or very high levels of psychological distress, comparted with 18% of medical students and 13% of the general population aged between 18-34 years.

    Another interesting longitudinal study conducted by Sheldon and Krieger found that law students in Florida exhibited similar levels of intrinsic motivation and values and subjective well-being as other advanced undergraduates at the beginning of law school. By the end of the first year, it was found that law students were more likely to be motivated to achieve goals in order to impress others, in other words extrinsic goals. This is an important finding when trying to understand burnout in lawyers.  Psychologists Deci and Ryan argue that it is the attainment of intrinsic goals that enhances well-being through their ability to satisfy the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

    Long, Unsociable Working Hours

    It is common for lawyers to face prolonged, unsociable working hours. All this translates to little or no time for relaxation. The often, unpredictable late working nights makes it very difficult to sustain a healthy social lifestyle outside the office.

    Common Lawyer Traits

    Research has focused on the possibility that some traits, common among lawyers, make them susceptible to psychological distress. They include:

    Maladaptive perfectionism

    Maladaptive perfectionism seen in lawyers is characterised by the urge to be flawless and set very high often unrealistic standards which can contribute to chronic dissatisfaction levels, eventually leading to unrealistic pressure to perform and eventually burnout.

    Acquired or inherent pessimism

    One of the key personality characteristics associated with psychological distress is pessimism. Pessimistic personality types tend to believe that the negative events are likely to be long lasting, their fault and will affect everything in their lives.

    All or nothing thinking style

    An all or nothing thinking style is related to perfectionism.  All or nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion that involves viewing the world as binary. Over time, this can lead to maladaptive perfectionism which leads to being switched on for long periods of the day. This can lead to sleep deprivation, skipping meals, and other maladaptive coping mechanisms. All these eventually contribute to burnout.

    Support and Mentoring

    Research has shown that lawyers who perceived a lack of social support available to them or who reported that their colleagues were unsupportive were more likely to be dissatisfied with their job. The availability and quality of mentoring from supervisors and colleagues have been shown to enhance job satisfaction among lawyers and protects against psychological distress and burnout. However, if you combine a competitive work environment with a perfectionist thinking style then mentoring and coaching can sometimes be perceived as a ‘weakness’ and are either not taken up when offered or not requested when needed.

    Role Clarification Problems

    Unclear work roles and responsibilities is a major cause of occupational stress. Lawyers who experience role ambiguity can be unsure how to behave or conduct themselves at work. The thin line between what is right or wrong can over time become a psychological stressor, especially for a perfectionist. In an attempt to handle this ambiguity, lawyers often find themselves constantly overworking in addition to the general long hours and succumbing to burnout.

    Work/Family Conflict

    Since lawyers work long working hours, it can make it difficult to undertake family commitments. As a lawyer advances, higher salaries mean some of these practical duties can be ‘outsourced’ but the emotional and relationship building aspects of family life can suffer. This is particular important as positive emotional connections and relationships are protective factors against burnout.

    Achieving satisfaction in both work and family life is a balance that requires good communications skills and a mental agility to switch and be present in each role.

    Anxiety Transference

    As a lawyer, working on intense matters is part and parcel of the job. Client themselves can be also very intense. Some lawyers find themselves suffering from anxiety transference. They hold on to their clients’ worries and anxieties. This is understandable given the amount of time spent at work. We are all influenced by the people we surrounded ourselves with.

    What are the potential physical, mental, and emotional consequences of lawyer burnout, and how can these impact the overall well-being of legal professionals?

    Work-related burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It often involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. There is a huge list of emotional, mental, behavioural and bodily burnout symptoms that lawyers experience, like anyone else who is burnt out. However often for lawyers their identity is very much tied to their profession, they can often experience intense shame and fear when they are starting to acknowledge that they may be burning out, this may delay seeking help. Also, for lawyers, the workload and workplace expectations mean that there are fewer opportunities to recharge which can keep lawyers in a bit of a vicious cycle of burnout – recharge – burnout again. This cycle can cause ill-health, relationship problems and other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

    How can the systemic factors be addressed?

    This is a big question that some law firms are beginning to tackle but there is a long way to go.

    Law firms are considering that the positive psychological resources of  lawyers are just as important to individual and organizational performance as their intellectual resources. There is growing psychological evidence that psychological capital which includes hope, optimism, self-efficacy and resilience shape the underlying attitudes and behaviors associated with increased performance. These psychological resources can buffer lawyers against the occupational psychological hazards of the profession. However,  I would argue that provision of such training and support needs careful consideration so that it is tailored in a way that will take into consideration the reality of being a lawyer. By this I mean consideration of the importance of privacy and limited time when it comes to when and how support is provided. Also, the content of such support needs to consider the cognitive biases and thinking styles that are typical in lawyers. For example, a perfectionist thinking style can easily turn psychological capital into something that works against them. Hope can become toxic positivity, optimism can become unrealistic optimism, high self-efficacy to achieve at work can be coupled with low-efficacy in relationships and resilience can become emotional suppression and pushing through no matter what. Unrealistic optimism, low-self-efficacy and emotional suppression all contribute towards burnout.

    About the author
    Specialising in healing and elevating professionals in high-pressure environments, particularly partners at law firms in the City of London, Dr. Sykes brings a wealth of expertise to the realms of self-discovery, self-elevation and leadership. Drawing from her extensive tenure working alongside individuals in demanding roles, Dr. Sykes offers a unique perspective rooted in practical experience...