Stress & Burnout

New article** Just Breathe, by Suzanne Robertson, TBA

Everyone occasionally feels frustrated, depressed and dissatisfied. But when someone experiences depression or burnout, these negative emotions become chronic and last for weeks or months. There is only so much psychological energy to get through the day, and work may completely deplete this energy. When this happens, work performance is further reduced in terms of quality and quantity. The lack of emotional energy makes it harder to deal with personal relationships and one may become frustrated and easily angered with family and friends. Judges or lawyers experiencing burnout may find themselves wondering "why bother?" about work that previously invigorated them. Even the word, burnout, implies that at one time they were on fire, but the flame has now flickered.

Burnout has been called a "romantic disorder" because it is characteristic of a work ethic admired in the legal culture. Long hours and a selfless dedication to work - to the exclusion of self-care - can lead to burnout. In a North Carolina bar survey, 36 percent of judges and lawyers surveyed had not taken even a one-week vacation in the previous year. Learning how to manage stress and improve self-care is critical to preventing burnout. This, in turn, can help minimize the effects of depression.

The stresses identified in the survey are:

  • Time constraints and deadlines.
  • The high stakes involved, including a loss of property, freedom and even life.
  • The high expectations of expertise.
  • The constant scrutiny and critical judgment of our work from opposing counsel or the courts.
  • The legal process in general, which is inherently conflict-driven. An opposing counsel is always determined to prove his opponent wrong.
  • The threat of malpractice, Murphy's Law, and CYB (cover your backside) from other lawyers and even your own clients.
  • A tendency to assume the clients' burdens.
  • The demise of professional cordiality and camaraderie.
  • The contrast between effective advocacy and personal relationships. While lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, emotionally defended or withdrawn, and while that style may have practical value, it may not be popular outside the arena of the legal case.
  • The professional training that requires you to notice and anticipate the negative and the downside in all situations.
  • The group norms or culture in the law firm, which carries certain expectations, including high billable hours. On top of work obligations come CLE requirements, bar activities and community service work--all expected from the "good" lawyers.
  • The depletion of energy that comes from high demands, strong focus and the need to stay on task.
  • Frequent use of defense mechanisms--such as rigidity, compulsiveness, and perfectionism.

Identifying Burnout

  • Do you feel rundown or drained by physical or emotional energy?
  • Do you find that you are prone to negative thinking about your job?
  • Do you find that you are harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve.
  • Do you find yourself getting easily irritated by small problems or by your coworkers?
  • Do you feel misunderstood or unappreciated by coworkers?
  • Do you feel that you have no one to talk to?
  • Do you feel that you are achieving less than you should?
  • Do you feel an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed?
  • Do you feel that you are not getting what you want out of your job?
  • Do you feel that you are in the wrong organization or in the wrong profession?
  • Are you becoming frustrated with parts of your job?
  • Do you feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate your ability to do a good job?
  • Do you feel that there is more work to do than you practically have the ability to do?
  • Do you feel that you do not have time to do many of the things that are important to doing a good quality job?
  • Do you find that you do not have time to plan as much as you would like to?

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of stress resulting from the care giving work you perform on a regular basis. While the symptoms are often disruptive, depressive, and irritating, an awareness of the symptoms and their negative effect on your life can lead to positive change, personal transformation, and a new resiliency. Reaching a point where you have control over your own life choices will take time and hard work. There is no magic involved. There is only a commitment to make your life the best it can be.

Normal symptoms present in an individual include:

  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Isolation from others
  • Receives unusual amount of complaints from others
  • Voices excessive complaints about administrative functions
  • Substance abuse used to mask feelings
  • Compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions
  • Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)
  • Legal problems, indebtedness
  • Reoccurrence of nightmares and flashbacks to traumatic event
  • Chronic physical ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds
  • Apathy, sad, no longer finds activities pleasurable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mentally and physically tired
  • Preoccupied
  • In denial about problems

When Compassion Fatigue hits critical mass in the workplace, the organization itself suffers. Chronic absenteeism, spiraling Worker's Comp costs, high turnover rates, friction between employees, and friction between staff and management are among organizational symptoms that surface, creating additional stress on workers.

Healing an organization takes time, patience, and most important, commitment. An awareness of Compassion Fatigue and its far reaching effects must be present at the highest level of management and work its way down to encompass line staff, as well as volunteers. Often, the mistrust that employees feel towards management is not unfounded. Since many care giving institutions are non-profit, they inherit additional challenges such as low wages, lack of space, high management turnover rate, and constantly shifting priorities.

Organizational symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include:

  • High absenteeism
  • Constant changes in co-workers relationships
  • Inability for teams to work well together
  • Desire among staff members to break company rules
  • Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors among staff
  • Inability of staff to complete assignments and tasks
  • Inability of staff to respect and meet deadlines
  • Lack of flexibility among staff members
  • Negativism towards management
  • Strong reluctance toward change
  • Inability of staff to believe improvement is possible
  • Lack of a vision for the future