(Interview conducted by Adil Abdulla (“AA”) and Crystal Park (“CP”) on February 16, 2023)
AA: Thank you for joining the OBA civil litigation section. I understand that you’re a registered psychotherapist who works with lawyers. Could you tell me a bit about your practice?
JB: I run a psychotherapy clinic called Eden Wellness for high achieving professionals. A huge proportion of my client base are lawyers, primarily because I used to be a litigator. I practiced on Bay Street before I decided to transition into this career. The clinic deals primarily with stress and burnout, anxiety, depression, relationship challenges, and life transitions.
AA: We’ve heard about burnout from the perspective of the person experiencing it. What does it mean from the perspective of a mental health professional?
JB: There is an official definition from the World Health Organization: it is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. It’s characterized by three dimensions. One is exhaustion. Two is increased distance from your job, including negativity or cynicism towards your job. Three is reduced professional efficacy.
Of course, burnout can happen in other contexts as well. For example, think of caregiver burnout.
AA: That’s really important given that caregiving is, sadly, an under-recognized form of work.
JB: Of course. It comes up a lot in the situation of parents who are also professionals. They can get burnout in both domains. It’s really important to be mindful that burnout can exist in both a personal and professional capacity because when it exists in both, it can be very challenging to manage.
AA: It’s good to keep that overlap in mind as we explore the professional side. What aspects of being a professional, lawyering, or litigation cause burnout?
JB: There are two primary causes of burnout: environmental and individual. In terms of environmental factors, research has shown that burnout is ripe to occur when there is an imbalance between job demands and job resources. There are 6 core job demands, 3 of which – workload, lack of control, and lack of community – are among the most prominent exposures that affect health and longevity at work.
For workload, think about the quantitative number of hours worked. It is clear how the billable hour target model exacerbates this demand.
For lack of control, if we look at the legal profession, many lawyers (especially junior lawyers) have low autonomy. The hierarchical nature of the profession can impact this.
For lack of community, this factor has been pronounced recently. Before, in an office setting, people could casually walk into each other’s offices and ask questions easily. That was sort of eradicated in the COVID era, with working from home. We’re slowly making our way back into the office, but not every firm has required that return to work where that ability to connect with social support quickly was accessible. Those are some of the environmental factors.
Then there’s the individual factors, like emotional intelligence and personality traits. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation.
As for personality traits, researchers sometimes refer to the Big Five. [Note to readers: the Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.] People who score high in neuroticism tend to have high presentations of depression, anxiety, and emotional stress, which are correlated with burnout. High achievers, including lawyers, are more prone to falling into that category. We can have certain mindsets of, “I have to prove myself. I have to be productive. I have to meet my billable target. I have to exceed my billable target. I have to sacrifice for my job.” There is a common presentation of perfectionism, people pleasing, a really loud inner critic, high levels of self-doubt, and overthinking. All of these contribute to burnout.
CP: Are lawyers more prone to burn out early in their careers or later in their careers?
JB: Certain factors that contribute to burnout can be more pronounced in early years of lawyering. In particular, that hierarchical piece I spoke about, and the billable hour target and that intensity that young lawyers tend to experience around meeting or exceeding those hours in order to move up the chain. Of course, as people do move up the chain, other factors come into consideration. But at least in my experience, earlier years of practice tend to create the most susceptibility.
AA: And that’s borne out in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada.
JB: That’s a very interesting study and the first major study to come out in Canada. All of the other research has come from the US, so this is pretty ground-breaking for the Canadian legal profession. It was encouraging that what I’ve seen on the ground is represented in the statistics, and that so much time and so many resources were invested into looking at this deeply. The next step will be the recommendations. Hopefully the recommendations will be taken seriously by the profession.
AA: Now that we have broached the subject of solutions, how should a litigator identify when they are at risk of burning out?
JB: I’d like to break that down into three categories: physical, psychological, and behavioural. Burnout can manifest in any of these. In terms of the physical, you might see headaches, chronic stomach issues, insomnia, chest pain, heart palpitations, and pain.
In terms of the psychological, you might see increased irritability, anger, frustration, hopelessness, and retreat. Activities that you love to do, you might not have the motivation to do anymore, or feel detached or have difficulty concentrating.
In terms of the behavioural, you might engage in absenteeism – not coming to work, being sick more often, showing up late to work, not going to team meetings or lunches, becoming a poor team player – or a drop in productivity. For some people, there can be an increase in substance use, like alcohol or drugs. Trouble can also show up in relationships.
AA: Thank you for such a comprehensive list. Okay, so now a litigator has identified that they are at risk of burning out. What should they do to prevent getting to that state?
JB: Before we address what can be done on an individual level to prevent burnout, I just want to address what must be considered at an institutional level. Obviously, the institutional change is not something that an individual litigator has much control over, but it’s very important to acknowledge, and has to be front and centre. For example, workload is not going to be changed on an individual level – it has to be changed at a much higher level. The supports available also have to be changed at an institutional level. The legal profession has to start paying attention to how they are listening to people working for them, assessing their needs, and addressing the gaps. How are they actually responding to any data that they might be collecting about this? What concrete changes are actually being put in place?
As for the individual level, the first step is to see the signs and acknowledge that you need support. Burnout does not happen overnight. It’s a slow and chronic building of workplace stress, not a today to tomorrow experience. So you have to be paying attention to yourself, how you’re feeling, and what’s happening in your world. The second step is to recharge your batteries. Make your physical and mental health a priority. That includes ensuring you are getting adequate sleep and good sleep quality, movement, and eating well. The third step is to create joy. Step out of your professional lens and think about what brings you happiness. Is that part of your life, or does it get quickly dismissed because you’re too busy? How can you put it back, even in an incremental way? Lack of joy can be really troublesome for your mental well-being.
Three more things are important. First is connections: connections to self and connection to others. Maintaining relationships to family and friends, not isolating yourself, having social engagements to go out and look forward to being around people. Second is setting boundaries. This is hard, especially for junior lawyers. It’s hard to set limits, especially for high achievers and perfectionists. Communicating that message and being heard and acknowledged and validated can be hard given the hierarchical nature of law firms. Third is knowing your values – the things that are important to you that you must have, you must respect. Some of the work that I do in my practice is to help clients piece that part together for themselves. To figure out how they want to live, what experience they want to have personally and professionally, and how they’re going to go about creating that for themselves.
CP: Could you give some examples as to what you mean by values?
JB: Values are the individual beliefs that motivate you to act in one way or another; they serve as a guide for human behaviour, and can be categorized or reflected in different domains. For example, one might be your profession or work. Another might be around family. One might be relationships, or community, or spirituality. The exercises I do with my clients are to drill down into these different domains, develop clarity around what values are present, and rank them to see how important different values are. What happens if certain values bump up against other values? How do you integrate them?
AA: We’ve discussed what to do when you’re on your way to burning out. What about after you are fully burnt out? How do you minimize the time spent in that state?
JB: Again, the first step is acknowledging it, naming it, and asking for help. Consider who you can ask – your support group, friends, family, a professional therapist. I recommend creating a wellness plan. Map out your self-care tools and strategies. Alongside that, have somebody holding you accountable. That’s part and parcel of professional help.
The last step is taking a break. That might be a couple of days off. It might be a vacation. So many lawyers forget vacations and just work through their vacation days. It might mean taking an extended leave to have enough time to really do some of that active work I spoke about, to spend time on wellness.
CP: You mentioned having a support network. As colleagues, how can we be helpful to lawyers who may be experiencing burnout?
JB: Everyone needs to continue having these conversations. The more we talk about these issues, the more they come out into the open, and validating that it is not only real, but also a big problem in the legal community. If you need the National Study to support this, here it is.
Besides that, we need to have broader conversations at firms. Check on each other. For example, if you notice some of the signs with a colleague down the hall, or in your group, simply ask, “Are you okay? Do you need any help? I’m here to talk if you need me.” Just offering that supportive approach and connection can be life altering for some people.
AA: Finally, do you have any resources to share?
JB: Consider picking up a copy of Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience by Paula Davis. It’s a really short book and the author was a lawyer. She left legal practice to become an expert on burnout. She speaks primarily about the institutional piece, which is especially important for law firms. But there’s a lot of great stuff in there for individuals and about everything we discussed.
AA: Thank you so much for the recommendation, for your time, for sharing your experience with the OBA civil litigation section, and for continuing the conversation.
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