Leader fatigue is a real problem, especially in the current crisis. Leaders who are exhausted and stressed make worse decisions, and risk burnout at the time when their businesses need them most. Simon Marshall looks at the benefits to leaders and their businesses of taking a break

Even the simplest of business planning exercises tells us that any attempt to return to the old way of life and lawyering is not yet an option. Life, how we conduct ourselves and how we do business have changed, and we need to adapt accordingly.

One challenge, to put it bluntly, is that many of us are shattered right now – physically, emotionally and mentally. This is particularly true of law firm leaders: the people who need to set the course of action and take their firms with them. The careers and wellbeing of many lay heavily on the shoulders of leaders, and we ask a great deal of them.

Leader fatigue is real and it has implications for both you as a leader, and the organisations you manage. In this article, I explain the effects of fatigue on leaders in law firms, the benefits of taking a break, and what kinds of break you need to take to make the best decisions for your business and maintain your own wellbeing

What are the benefits of taking a break?

The amygdala – the part of our brain which keeps us safe in a crisis – can only respond with one of three options: fight, flight or freeze. In recent months, we have been living in a heightened state of fear and stress, with one of those three settings turned on far more often than in our ‘normal’ lives.

The rational part of an adult’s brain, the prefrontal cortex, responds to situations with good judgment and in consideration of long-term consequences. But this part of our brain only gets to work when the amygdala is certain that we are safe.

Remaining under stress for extended periods is exhausting – physically, mentally and emotionally. In the current crisis, survival mode needs to give way to thoughtful / reflective mode, so we can fully engage with the next phase, deal with all its complexities and make the right decisions. In order to do this, we first need a break.

This has three main benefits for leaders and their businesses.

First, it helps improve your perspective. How often have you come back to an issue only to spot something different after rest and at a distance? Approaching the problems of the next phase with the mindset of the first phase may well prove counterproductive – yes, we are still in survival mode, but we also need the business to perform in the new economic environment. That balancing act requires new thinking.

Second, your empathy levels rise again. Leaders need to use empathy to do their job well every day, but being human and humane can be exhausting, especially under the current increased stress levels. The biggest mistakes I have seen made by leaders have been when they are stretched and tired and haven’t been able to adapt to a new challenge. Normally level-headed individuals can become irritable and petulant, undermining years of good work.

Finally, it’s good for the long-term future of the business, because deputies get to step up. They’ll learn a whole lot in this interlude about running the business, who they need to call on and where they need help assistance and guidance. This will help improve recruitment and retention, bolster succession planning, and bring new ideas and perspectives into the business. Both your people and the business will be stronger for it.

What prevents leaders from taking a break?

First, the fear of how it will be perceived. How will it look if you take time off in the midst of a crisis?

How difficult this will be to tackle will depend partly on your personal brand: if it’s based on empathy, then you’re going to have fewer challenges than if it’s about whipping people to bill for every second possible! However, if you can explain the need for the break to your own leadership team, and more broadly within your business, then you’ve passed the first hurdle.

Trying to obfuscate or fudge what you’re doing won’t go well. A simple communication stating that: “I’m taking a few days off to spend some time with my loved ones and prepare for the Summer / Autumn phase,” is unlikely to go too far wrong – especially when paired with “X will be deputising for me for the period and will be in contact with me regularly”. I can still name the managing partner’s deputy for some of the firms I’ve worked at, even all these years later. That kind of clarity resonates across the whole business – as does a lack of clarity.

The second reason why leaders might not take a break is the fear that something will go wrong.

This excuse is one that leaders need to let go of. If you plan and delegate effectively, everything will most likely be fine. And if something were to actually go wrong, then your deputy would contact you – and if necessary, you could return to work. They know where you are, and can contact you if they need you.

What kind of breaks do leaders need?

There are three types of break that leaders need – just like the rest of us: daily, weekly, and vacations. Each of these adds something to the leader’s ability to peak perform.

Daily breaks are often hard for leaders, who are always being pressed for ‘just five minutes of your time’. However, strangely, remote working makes these short pauses slightly easier. A daily walk with the dog, for instance, is a great way to reset and make the rest of the day more productive.

Weekend breaks are essential for leaders to be able to give themselves fully to the next week, and to subconsciously reflect on the past week. If you feel you must be available for at least some of the time, set limited slots in each weekend day, so that you can make time to properly switch off and relax. Be clear about when you’ll be available.

And a two-week holiday is essential to punctuate your activity levels for the rest of the year. We need longer breaks to fully replenish, gain perspective and, if necessary, change course.