Feel the Burn: Burnout in the Workplace

  • December 04, 2021
  • Olivia Koneval-Brown, Mann Lawyers LLP

“You’re going to burnout.” Many of us have probably heard this phrase, having either been the one telling this to someone or been on the receiving end.

With its stay-at-home orders, working from home, and not having a clear division in our days, the pandemic has made burnouts a more prevalent issue across various professions. Unsurprisingly, the legal field is no exception to that. And yet, it can be difficult to recognize burnout and even cope with it.

People usually define burnout as being state of complete stress where the person is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It can make ordinary daily tasks seem insurmountable and lead to feelings of hopelessness and negativity. How long this can last differs for each individual and for some can lead to other diagnoses and conditions like anxiety and depression.

Burnout is typically caused by ongoing exposure to high stress. People with certain traits like perfectionism, the need to be in control of situations, meet timelines and stay organized can be more susceptible to this state.

Lawyers are but one group whose day-to-day environment has experienced an increase in stress and pressure since Covid-19 started. As a family lawyer, I can say my colleagues and I have been juggling closed courts and pivoting with new practice directions, parents and parties who are feeling more strain than ever in their personal lives, higher rates of contentious separations, and the truly unprecedented wave of unknowns in all facets of our caselaw. Never have I personally felt so uncertain about my abilities when having to tell a client, “We just don’t know yet how the courts are going to deal with that issue given the impact of the pandemic.”

So how can one recognize if they are maybe experiencing burnout? As is likely unsurprising, no one thing causes burnout. Some people will cite factors like extreme fluctuations in workflow, repeatedly dealing with stressful situations, having unsupportive colleagues and bosses, lacking a personal support network, lacking control in workload and most commonly, the continuous blurring and disappearance of work-life balance.

There are common symptoms of burnout that people should look out for in themselves and in others, including:

  • Feeling that you have to force yourself to work;
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or stay focused;
  • Experiencing a lack of energy;
  • Getting sick more frequently;
  • Creating escape fantasies from your current situation;
  • Feelings of dread;
  • Lacking satisfaction from work or when accomplishing tasks;
  • Isolating yourself from others;
  • Easily becoming irritated or experiencing impatience;
  • Having trouble sleeping;
  • Spending more time being lethargic and having little desire to do activities you previously enjoyed.

I would argue that it is now more important than ever for lawyers to check-in with themselves and those around them for signs of burnout. Our mental health is important. Any existing stigma and barriers need to be knocked down. I will be the first to admit that, as a Type A personality, it is easy to try and push through, deny what is going on, and continue working. But we need to start asking ourselves and others these questions and find ways to help prevent and combat burnout.

When talking to someone who you think may be or is experiencing burnout, offer a listening ear. Validate what it is they are feeling and concerned about. Offer to help them where you can or where they may ask or suggest people who can help them. Something like click-and-deliver groceries, a babysitter, or a professional they could speak to are some examples of this. Remind them that they are not alone. Sending a thoughtful text can be all it takes.

If you think you are experiencing burnout, seek support from someone you trust. Whether it is a colleague, someone in your personal circle, or a professional, having someone to talk to and work through your feelings and emotions is a healthy way to tackle burnout. At work, it might be helpful to talk to someone about trigger areas and how to approach or change tasks to help you through. Try to practice good sleeping habits. I have been told that keeping a notepad by the bed to write down those ‘to do’ lists is very helpful to many people. Get some exercise, even when you don’t feel like doing it. Even a short walk can do wonders. Slowing down with some meditation or breathing techniques can also help. Activities like painting, gardening, or cooking can be good ways to give yourself a mental break. Most importantly, know when to give yourself a break. Taking a few days off or leave is important and needed.

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be experiencing burnout, it is very important to address it. While we might not be able to fully prevent or avoid stress, burnouts are something we can stop.