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Burnout is Not Good for Business…But Self-Care Is

As someone with a MAJOR type-A personality (ask anyone who knows me), I am a wee bit of a workaholic. This might sound noble, but I assure you, it isn’t. 

Over the past three years, I’ve been caught up short by my own workaholism more than once, and the way in which it does not serve me as a good business practice. I’ve had many, many conversations with others in the legal profession who are in the same boat – and I think we’ve also learned that remote work (which has offered many people a greater work/life balance – whatever that is) can help us to achieve a little more peace. But so many of us are still really burned out.

Psychology Today defines “burnout” as

a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”

This is most often caused by work, but it can also be caused by other things going on in your life. While it’s not a medical diagnosis, says the Mayo Clinic, there are job-related symptoms you might notice, such as:

  • Becoming more cynical or critical at work
  • Feeling like you’re dragging yourself in or having trouble getting started
  • Becoming irritable or impatient with colleagues or clients
  • Lacking the energy to be consistently productive
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Lacking satisfaction from your achievements
  • Feeling disillusioned about your job
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or not to feel at all
  • Changing sleep habits (less or more)
  • Troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints

If you had an “oh sh!t” moment while reading this list, you might be suffering from burnout. And frankly, with the way we’ve designed the legal profession, praised the martyrdom of working until we die at our desks here in the US, the constant stress of the pandemic, a war in Europe, potential and looming recessions, and MUCH much more, it’s no wonder.

But does the idea of stepping back and taking care of yourself better fill you with dread, because perhaps your firm or your clients will suspect that you’re not as valuable to them, and you certainly can’t let THAT happen?

(As an aside, while I was writing this post, the power suddenly went out in my remote office on a bright sunny day for a few minutes. If that isn’t some kind of metaphor for burnout and self-care, I’m not sure what is. But did I stop working? I did not. I just hoped that my automatic save feature for the blog didn’t kick in. Truly, I am my own worst enemy.)

Great news…or bad news, depending on how you look at it – being a workaholic doesn’t actually make you more productive or better at your job. I can already hear you complaining because I also know how the legal industry works – sometimes, it’s less about BEING a workaholic, and more about APPEARING to be one (this is why so many of us want to kill the billable hour dead). But more does not equal better.

So many studies point out that workaholism has a negative effect – from Inc. we learn that:

  • There is a 67% increased risk of developing heart disease for workers who put in 11 hours a day versus 8 (and while yes, you should worry about your own health, if you want to be cold and calculating about it, from a business perspective, you want healthy employees who will be continuing to contribute to the bottom line).
  • Those who work 50-plus hours a week are three times more likely to develop an alcohol abuse problem.
  • Fifty percent of employees are less productive as a result of stress. (FIFTY percent).
  • Twenty hours without sleep is equal to a 0.1 blood alcohol level, which is the equivalent of five or six drinks, for people who weigh 160-180 pounds). Consider that you may be asking yourself, or your colleagues, to be focusing on important client work while effectively sleep-drunk.

These effects are awful on us personally, and they’re also terrible for business – imagine how much better advocates and advisors for our clients we would be if we were well-rested, peaceful, and fully engaged in our day. I’m not trying to make you laugh but to offer a true business case for taking better care of yourself. Frankly, I wish it was enough to say that it was important from a human perspective, but we’re still at the point where we have to offer the business case.

So, how do you do it?

Self-care looks different for everyone, and it may be different for you day to day.

  • Give some thought to what is important to you and what isn’t important to you, when it comes to the areas of your life, such as physical, social, emotional, and spiritual (by spiritual, I don’t necessarily mean religious – this can be spending time in nature, being grateful, supporting charitable causes, or meditating. Again, this is entirely based on what rocks your socks). Identify which of these areas feels currently well supported, and which could be better attended to.
  • Break these out and look at what activities you do in each of these areas currently that you’d consider to be self-care, and what might be blocking you from doing more.
  • Give some thought to what you need more of – is it connection, health, relaxation, comfort, expression, or rejuvenation? What things might fit in each of those areas that you could do more of?
  • Break that down for yourself on a yearly, monthly and weekly basis – look at what you can realistically do, and how often. Do you want to do more meditation? Is that something you can do daily? Do you want to go fishing once a year? Once a month? How can you ensure that that happens?
  • Create your ideal morning and evening routines – what does a truly peaceful start and end to your day look like? If that ideal start and end happens, how long does it actually take? (This was an eye-opener for me – I really had to start getting ready for bed much earlier than I was so that I could get the sleep I needed – am I doing it? No. Does this impact me? HUGELY.). But can YOU implement those? Absolutely. And will I try to be more diligent? You bet.
  • Note when you become stressed throughout the day – what was the preceding stressor? How did it make you feel? What was your reaction? Is it something you have control over? If you do, how can you change it? If you don’t, how can you change your response to it?
  • Something else I have REALLY tried to work on is being honest about my deadlines, and this is something I’ve talked about with my therapist. Is the deadline a true deadline, or a Lindsay-deadline? Many of my deadlines are self-imposed – the priorities are things that I have decided are essential, and not reality. In the legal world, there are often things that are truly pressing. But when you look at your to-do list or your inbox, can you identify what is actually a client priority and what is self-imposed? Are there things that you can better manage expectations with your clients on, to give yourself some breathing room? Are there things that your clients may not want immediate answers on either? I say that not because I think clients don’t want to hear from you, but because sometimes we reply back to have things out of our own inboxes, but we then also give work back to someone else. I try to remind myself that we are ALL burned out and stressed – when I looked at my calendar for December, there were a couple of things I realized that I could realistically move to 2023 because my lawyers wouldn’t want those things in their inboxes either. (As it is, I suspect they’re going to have enough of me this week!)

I highly, highly recommend the simple self Self-Care Planner (credit for many of the above suggestions to them). This is the daily version, but there is also a weekly and thirteen-week version. They give you guidance and suggestions which will help you to develop your own self-care plan. And as I always do, I will highly recommend finding a good therapist that you connect with who can help you navigate your personal stress minefields – a good therapist is invaluable. A great place to start is by looking at Psychology Today or by asking your primary care physician for a recommendation. And if you don’t feel that you click when you meet them, that’s okay – move on to the next therapist!

Self-care is unique to each of us, but we all need it – and our practices and businesses need it too. Particularly in these stressful times where the lines between our professional and personal lives have blurred more than ever, the ability to take care of ourselves so that we can show up as the best version of ourselves for our clients and colleagues (and families and friends!) is essential – and truly, showing up as the best version of ourselves FOR ourselves is the most important thing.