Preventative measures to stop burnout in the legal profession

7th Sep 2021

Burnout in the legal profession, often caused by a lack of boundaries between work and personal life, is becoming a growing concern. More than any other profession, the traditional legal culture sees lawyers working in high-pressure environments with excessive hours, resulting in burnout and mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

A recent study of 200 legal professionals across Australia and New Zealand revealed that 85% of employees suffer from anxiety or know of a colleague who is, while 80% suffer from depression or know of a colleague who is.

Understanding how to build resilience, align your core values with your workplace, match personality traits and identify life priorities are some of the key stepping stones towards preventing burnout.

Below are four tips to help you and those around you to prevent burnout.

Identify core values and life priorities

The first step for legal professionals is to clearly identify and define core values and life priorities. Ask yourself, ‘Do my core values and life priorities align with my current reality?’

Every person, by nature, has core values. These are the factors in your life that define who you are, what you care about, and what’s most important to you. These factors often influence how we live and work, and we tend to use them as markers to determine if our lives are tracking how we want them to. Even when work gets busy, it’s important to stand in solidarity with your values and priorities otherwise internal conflicts will arise, causing loss of passion in your job and inevitably leading to burnout in the long term.

Research from the ABA Law Practice Division suggests that you are less likely to experience burnout and more likely to remain resilient in your place of work when your personality traits, priorities and personal values are aligned with your workplace and those you work with.

Every so often, it’s important to conduct a self-audit to examine whether your values and priorities are aligned with your life, both in the workplace and at home. Be aware of your daily routines from the time you wake up to when you go to bed, and keep note of whether your day-to-day activities are aligned with your core values and life priorities.

Build an identity outside of your career

It’s often easy for individuals to associate and define their whole identities according to their jobs. This may be instinctive behaviour, however it can be problematic.

What can help you to build your own identity outside of your career is to foster relationships outside of the workplace and participate in activities that focus on you, such as exercise, sport and other hobbies. This will empower you to identify and learn new things about yourself as well as improve your mental clarity and wellbeing, because you’re naturally reducing stress levels, boosting serotonin, and building self-purpose beyond your office desk.

It’s crucial to be aware of and acknowledge the milestones in your personal life rather than putting pressure on your work performance and constantly focusing on your professional development. Essentially these positive outcomes will translate back into the workforce by naturally improving personal motivation and productivity.

Set boundaries, routines and habits

Establishing boundaries between your work and home life is imperative due to the high pressure and stress associated with the legal profession.

Over the past couple of years employees have been increasingly working from home due to the pandemic and lockdowns. This has made it more challenging to maintain boundaries and to ‘switch off’ as the lines between home and work life have become blurred.

However failing to set boundaries can be detrimental to your mental health and wellbeing, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and sometimes substance abuse.

Setting boundaries in your workplace or with your employees/employer is crucial for separating work and home life. This may involve changing your routines or habits; for example, starting or finishing work at a reasonable hour to ensure that you have time for your personal priorities, or going to bed at a specific time to ensure that you get enough sleep for the next work day. Ensure that the boundaries you set are aligned with your core values and personal priorities.

On average, it can take up to 66 days for a new habit or routine to become automatic and while this may feel uncomfortable in the beginning stages, it is key to preventing burnout and mental health issues in the long run.

It’s okay to change career direction

Burnout can also be driven by being unhappy in your current role. The good news for legal professionals is that you have a wealth of skills and knowledge that will equip you to pivot into a new career direction. Don’t be afraid of change and realise that you don’t have to lock yourself into one choice. You are never too young or old to change your career direction if your job comes at the expense of your mental wellbeing.

Finally, if you are struggling with your mental health, reach out to myself or another health professional. Having open conversations about mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession is essential for building resilience and preventing burnout industry-wide.

Dr Frank Chow is a psychiatrist and the director of 2OP Health. He is a specialist in organisational and occupational psychiatric service, specialising in workplace-related mental health care. With years of experience, Dr Chow is passionate about advocating early intervention, education and rehabilitation for all individuals so that they can get back on track with improved clarity, motivation, and fulfilment at work.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Mental health