Lawyers are notorious for their long working hours and high-stress work. The burnout battle is one that is faced by many and has huge consequences for both individuals and firms.
LexisNexis spoke with Charlène Gisèle former lawyer, now a high-performance coach and director who helps individuals and organisations achieve sustainable high performance, but not at the cost of burnout. Charlène explains the stages of burnout, and some strategies firms can implement to help their lawyers battle burnout.
Implications of employees being burnt out on both the firm and themselves
There is no other way of putting it: employee burnout significantly impacts work performance, productivity, and well-being, which are all essential KPIs for law firms.
I like to think of the early stages of burnout as when your per-minute productivity starts to decline, which is when your stress levels exceed your body’s ability to recover and continue to perform at the same or, if not better, performance.
Burnout depletes mental energy and impairs concentration, which increases the likelihood of errors and lower-quality work. This can have long-term consequences for the firm’s reputation and client satisfaction. Small mistakes can cost firms substantial amounts of money.
Burnt-out employees are less able to fully engage in their work, which can lead to low morale and commitment, impacting the overall work culture and team dynamics. Stress can be contagious, and if senior employees are burnt-out, it can negatively ripple out through a team and a firm. I have seen in some firms where this creates a culture of burnout.
Law firms can best avoid these implications by starting with simple strategies such as fostering a burnout-aware environment and promoting open communication that allows employees to discuss workloads, stress levels, and concerns.
How can firms optimise employee performance but not at the expense of their employee’s mental health and well-being?
Firms can optimise employee performance, well-being and mental health simultaneously by promoting a mindset shift throughout the firm that understands the importance of keeping a performance-rest balance. The performance-rest balance recognises the need for self-care and rest after busy work periods and is essential to suppressing chronic levels of stress that drive burnout.
Busy lawyers don’t like to hear it, but rest is crucial for preventing stress from becoming chronic. To maintain performance, we need to allow our bodies and minds to recover, recharge, and build resilience. During rest, the body can repair itself, restore energy levels, and regulate stress hormones, which helps to reduce stress levels. Mentally, rest allows us to process and integrate information, enhance problem-solving skills, and replenish cognitive resources, leading to better decision-making which is ideal for high-performing lawyers.
The performance-rest balance looks like building a culture where taking breaks and engaging in regular restorative activities, which last anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes. A walk outside or practising calming breathwork can help keep stress manageable and prevent burnout. It is also key to optimise habits and behaviours outside working hours to maintain peak performance during working hours. For instance, what we consume or do at the weekend can greatly impact (negatively or positively) how we feel on Monday morning. Optimised weekend rituals that involve self-care, restorative sleep, nourishing food to fuel performance, intellectual recovery, positive social interaction, creativity, time outdoors and exercise are all key to thriving long-term in law.
where do most people sit on the pressure performance curve?
How would you advise firms who are not in the middle zone of the pressure performance curve?
In my experience, I believe most people in law lean more towards the over-stressed side of the pressure performance curve. Rarely do I see clients who complain that their pressure levels are too low, which leads to complacency, lack of motivation and engagement.
However, I do see many in law on the over-stressed side, where excessive pressure and heightened stress levels result in a decline in performance. This is because when we are overstressed, our brain shifts its limited resources to combat the stress instead of using it to solve our work problems.
The one thing about pressure performance that firms must understand is that everyone’s baseline differs. This is why some people in the same situation are more susceptible to burnout than others. For example, to help employees reach their optimal performance zone, firms should assess current pressure levels through employee surveys or one-on-one meetings and adjust workloads to ensure each employee maintains themselves in the middle zone.
What tips would you give to firms experiencing high burnout and employee turnover?
In my experience, firms facing high burnout and employee turnover should first look at improving management and leadership through effective training. Great lawyers don’t necessarily make great team leaders, and in my experience, I have seen many clients be driven to burnout and leave a firm because of poor management and leadership. Culture is downstream of leadership, and that is why it’s vital for firms to make sure their leadership is continuously improving and not driving a culture of burnout.
Another excellent strategy for firms is to offer coaching support for employees, access to burnout advisors, participation in well-being initiatives and training and assess the situation through employee surveys, exit interviews, and one-on-one discussions to identify primary causes. This will then help guide a firm on where to direct best its efforts in fostering a supportive work culture that promotes open communication, empathy, and support, all associated with lower levels of burnout and employee turnover.
How can firms promote a better work-life balance
and reduce the reputation of the legal industries’ long working hours?
Promoting a better work-life balance in the legal industry requires a shift in the mindset of firms and implementing policies and practices that prioritise employee well-being while framed within long working hours.
First, there needs to be a commitment from leadership. Leadership within the firm should demonstrate a commitment to work-life balance and actively promote it. If associates don’t see partners walking the talk, they will not follow through. This can involve setting an example by not replying, sending emails late in the evening, or taking a short recovery break after an intense meeting.
Encourage employees to establish self-care boundaries between work and personal life, such as not answering work emails or calls during non-work hours unless necessary. Managers should also respect these boundaries and avoid sending non-urgent messages outside of working hours. For example, one of the biggest drivers of burnout I see in my clients is being unable to disconnect from work or plan their personal lives for fear of work always being present.
A third strategy firms can implement is to share success stories and highlight examples of employees who have successfully maintained a healthy work-life balance while excelling in their roles. This can help challenge the belief that long working hours are necessary for success in the legal industry and provide a positive role for employees to emulate.
Is there a correlation between technology introductions and a better work-life balance for employees?
The legal industry’s relationship between technology and work-life balance isn’t strictly black and white. Where I have seen a negative correlation between technology and work-life balance is that it blurs the lines between work and personal life. Technology makes people feel like they have to be constantly connected.
Technology can be dangerous for work-life balance because, on one side, the legal industry often leans towards a culture of overworking and constantly striving for more, and tech companies engineer devices and apps designed to capture our attention. When combined, we have a potentially hazardous mix that can leave lawyers glued to their phones, incessantly checking work emails and struggling to disconnect from their professional obligations.
Another challenge with technology is that we often use it for our downtime. However, this is not the best way to rest and recharge. Instead of doing more holistic activities such as connecting with friends face-to-face, walking in nature at the weekend or engaging in a hobby, we can spend our downtime on technology, which is not ideal for burnout prevention and work stress recovery.
Original article published by LexisNexis: https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/