Angus Lyon examines the signs of ’burnout’, what it means and why you should be mindful of the competing work and home-life demands your staff may be facing.

 

Achieving, and maintaining, a good work-life balance has always been a challenge for many in the legal profession. Managing a heavy workload whilst dealing with family and personal responsibilities can be tough. Juggling competing pressures has become even more taxing over the last 12 months’ or so, with the increased demands on time and difficult circumstances people are facing as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Rising pressure

Just over a year ago, I was given Haruki Murakami’s book What I talk about when I talk about running by a ‘secret Santa’.

Murakami is a fanatical runner and I, the most average of park runners, was inspired to begin preparations to run the local half-marathon. By gradually building up from my 10k runs, I thought I would be ready by the time it came around; what could possibly go wrong?

Well, the lockdown for one. However, that wasn’t the real problem – I was over-enthusiastic and ran too far too soon. I developed plantar fasciitis (a medical term for very sore feet); I put too much pressure on my feet – it took a year before I could comfortably begin running again.

When I was partner at a law firm there were many pressures I faced – much like my marathon training, this became too much to manage. I experienced burnout.

Burnout

The World Health Organisation (WHO) define burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy.”

Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkley, has been researching burnout for the last 40 years, and her work has informed much of the current thinking on the subject. She and her colleague, Michael Leiter, identified six areas of workplace life which directly impact occupational stress:

Workload

When job demands exceed the resources, including time, available to fulfil the requirements, the likelihood of burnt out employees increases.

Control

A sense of personal control in the workplace is vital to avoid occupational stress.

Reward

Insufficient reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout.

Community

This includes issues of conflict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team. The overall quality of social interaction at work is key.

Fairness

It’s important that decisions affecting the workforce are perceived as being fair and equitable.

Values

The factors that originally attracted people to their jobs need to be nurtured – they are the connection between the worker and the workplace.

Conflicting priorities

You should consider the workforce you manage and take into account how your lawyers are being affected by the huge adjustments most have had to make over the last year.

Once a fortnight, I answer calls made to a helpline operated by LawCare, an independent charity working to promote good mental health and wellbeing in legal workplaces. Many of the callers have reported being expected to perform minor miracles during the pandemic – remaining highly productive whilst coping with significant changes at home; social isolation, home-schooling, ‘cabin fever’, caring for ill loved ones and bereavement.

These changes have occurred alongside losing the routine of leaving the house and commuting to the office, making it much more difficult to maintain clear separation between home life and work. Minimal supervision, the opportunity to bounce ideas off colleagues and ‘Zoom fatigue’ are also common issues law firm staff are struggling to manage. With some time to go before lockdown restrictions ease fully, and the future of work post-pandemic remaining unclear, it seems the strain may not end anytime soon.

The phrase ‘toxic productivity’ has gained traction recently. It refers to situations where productivity and profit are prioritized at the expense of the health and wellbeing of staff.

Revisiting Maslach’s six factors, if workload becomes overload, a sense of control is lost. Reward starts to feel inadequate and the community you would usually draw on for support is fragmented by home working. Fairness is eroded as staff feel forced into working in ways they feel less comfortable with, and toxic productivity occurs.

There are many law firm leaders who already have the wellbeing of their people as a top priority in their business strategies, and who have been taking proactive steps to improve their mental health and wellbeing support, but you should still be on the lookout for the warning signs of burnout. Continue to think of what more you could do to keep staff healthy.

 

There are organisations who offer support, resources and advice, both for firm leaders and for staff, on mental health and wellbeing at work.

Lawcare

LawCare provide a range of resources on mental health and staff wellbeing in legal workplaces. Their helpline details can be found on their website.

Mental Health First Aid

Offering training for you and your staff to support each other.

Five Ways to Wellbeing

An evidenced report outlining key actions to take to stay well.