Stress & Burnout

What is Stress?

Stress affects all people and all professions. Stress in the legal profession, however, is well-documented. Lawyers often have demanding schedules and heavy workloads, which may contribute to increased stress levels.

Stress is a physical, mental and emotional response to life’s changes and demands. It is experienced in levels – from low to high. Not all stress is harmful. In fact, moderate stress can be positive, challenging people to act in creative and resourceful ways. When stress is high, however, it can be damaging and lead to serious health problems such as depression and heart disease.

Everyone experiences stress. Any number of factors may contribute to stress, including personality, physical and emotional health, personal relationships, major life changes, and social and job issues. It’s not always possible to avoid stress, but it is possible to change your response to stress.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress affects the body, as well as thoughts and emotions. Below are some common symptoms of stress.

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

How to Manage Stress

Although it’s not always possible to avoid stress, there are ways to help minimize stress. If you recognize signs of stress, the best way to manage and alleviate stress is to develop coping strategies. Some coping strategies include:

  • Avoid controllable stressors
  • Plan major lifestyle changes
  • Realize your limitations
  • Prioritize
  • Improve communication
  • Share your thoughts
  • Develop a positive attitude
  • Reward yourself
  • Eat and sleep well
  • Exercise

If you suffer from stress LAP can help, please call or email: 1-888-408-6222 or eeckhardt@nassaubar.org

Burnout

You’ve probably heard the term many times, but casual references fall short of describing the genuine distress that lawyers with burnout experience; a condition that profoundly impacts their professional and personal life. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to become a lawyer in the first place. Burnout is a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can creep up on you if you’re not paying attention to the warning signals. The signs and symptoms of burnout are subtle at first, but they get more pronounced as time goes on.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches (migraines), back pain, muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Recognizing the symptoms can prevent burnout. Lifestyle and behavior changes can help. However, sometimes it’s too late to prevent burnout—you’re already past the breaking point. If that’s the case, it’s important to take burnout very seriously. Trying to push through the exhaustion and continue as you have been will only cause further emotional and physical damage. When you’ve reached the end stage of burnout, adjusting your attitude or looking after your health isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to force yourself to slow down or take a break. Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal. Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to change course accordingly.

The most effective way to combat job burnout is to quit doing what you’re doing and do something else, whether that means changing jobs or changing practice areas, and for some lawyers even changing careers. But if that isn’t an option for you, there are still things you can do to improve your situation, or at least your state of mind.

Actively address problems. Take a proactive rather than a passive approach to issues in your workplace, including stress at work. You’ll feel less helpless if you assert yourself and express your needs. If you don’t have the authority or resources to solve the problem, talk to a superior. Or, if you are the supervisor, take the risk to delegate more.

Ask for new duties. If you’ve been doing the exact same work for a long time, ask to try something new: a different practice area, a different focus within your current practice area, a different role within your practice area.

Take time off. If burnout has progressed to the breaking point, take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and gain some perspective. Most lawyers think they have no choice and that this is not an option, which is usually followed by forced time off in the form of hospitalization. None of us is indispensable. You may be surprised to find more support within your firm than you imagined when taking some time off.

The LAP can help lawyers navigate the process of finding better boundaries within their professional lives. If you suffer from burnout, please call us 1-888-408-6222 or email at LAP@nassaubar.org.