Burning burnout: Beyond a culture of lawyer burnout
By Nick Bloy
Nick Bloy considers how you can find balance and avoid burnout
LawCare recently published the findings of its Life in the Law research. The study into wellbeing across the legal profession captured data between October 2020 and January 2021 from more than 1,700 legal professionals in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man. The research found burnout is endemic within the industry, and having a significant negative impact on the mental health of legal professionals.
I haven’t got burnout… have I?
Burnout results from experiencing prolonged or chronic job stress, which has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism towards one’s job, and feelings of reduced professional efficacy.
While several different measures of burnout exist, for the purposes of LawCare’s research, we utilised the Oldenburg Burnout inventory. To help provide perspective, someone would typically be categorised as having a high risk of burnout if their score exceeds 34.8 on a scale which ranges from a possible score of 16 to 64. The average score of those who participated in the study was 42.2, a whole seven points above the cut-off point indicating a high risk of burnout.
What’s making me feel like this?
LawCare’s study looked at various potential contributing factors to burnout, such as work intensity, sleep quantity, psychological safety and autonomy. The findings pointed to the fact that all of these factors do contribute to the risk of burnout to a greater or lesser extent.
Particularly high scores were noted for the exhaustion element of burnout, which considerably exceeded the recommended cut-off point. For example, most people strongly agreed with the statement ‘there are days when I feel tired before starting work’. While many legal professionals may simply assume, as I once did, that being constantly exhausted is normal, it is not.
Participants who reported higher levels of autonomy displayed lower levels of burnout. Similarly higher levels of psychological safety (where people feel ‘safe’ to own up to mistakes or raise concerns without the fear of negative career repercussions) were correlated with lower levels of burnout.
Is this normal?
Sleep was another positive factor that reduced the risk of burnout significantly. People recording an average of at least eight hours’ sleep each night averaged a burnout score 10 points lower than those who had between 4-5 hours of sleep each night.
Conversely, greater work intensity (which includes the number of hours worked, how unpredictable the workload is, and the pace at which people are expected to work) led to greater burnout among survey participants. An interesting insight from the data was, regardless of how much autonomy a person has, or how psychologically safe and supportive their work environment is, the presence of high work intensity produced a negative effect and correlated with a higher risk of burnout. This suggests reducing work intensity by itself could have a significant impact on people’s risk of burnout.
Burnout can have far reaching implications for both physical and mental health – it can often be career limiting or sometimes career ending; in severe cases, it can also result in the loss of someone’s life. It poses a major risk to the sustainability of the legal profession, both from a recruitment and retention perspective, as well as the reputational and financial damage that may arise from avoidable mistakes resulting from those experiencing burnout at work. Such mistakes may simultaneously increase the number and severity of professional negligence claims against firms.
What can be done?
If we genuinely want legal professionals to flourish, the culture and practice of law needs to change. It will require the concerted, joined-up efforts of many, including partners, lawyers, managers, barristers, regulators, clients. LawCare’s research provides a template from which to build a more sustainable legal industry; one in which legal professionals can be supported to set more sustainable boundaries for themselves.
This can be achieved by cultivating a psychologically safe space where they feel able to raise concerns about mental ill-health, work intensity, bullying, autonomy and other contributing factors. However, crucially, leaders will need do more than simply pay lip service to those concerns, but genuinely put effective measures in place to support and protect the mental health of their people. While many of us are keen to see change, too few appreciate the role they will need to play. With 69 per cent of legal professionals experiencing mental ill-health in the 12 months preceding the survey, if not now, then when?
Nick Bloy is an executive coach, founder of coaching consultancy Wellbeing Republic, and part of the Life in the Law research committee: wellbeingrepublic.com
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