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What is employee burnout and how can you prevent it in your law firm?

employee burnout in law firms

The legal profession is one synonymous with high-intensity, stressful and often emotionally charged situations. The industry’s leading mental health and wellbeing charity, LawCare revealed that the most common reason for calls to their helpline is often stress and a feeling of being burned out.

And yet, the driven, perfectionist nature of our legal professionals often means that reaching out for help or support when experiencing the signs of stress or burnout is overlooked amid fears of appearing ‘weak’. As they strive to remain in control of high-pressure situations; legal professionals are among the most prone to stress and often, burnout.

In a 2018 study of 200 law firms, almost 80% cited stress as the primary cause of substance abuse and mental health problems in their firms. As levels of stress and burnout reach epidemic levels, reducing the risk of associates becoming burned out must be a top priority for HR leaders in the legal industry.

What is employee burnout?

Recognising the difference between stress and burnout is key. Stress that is temporary or associated with a specific event or period in our lives is fairly standard, and something we all experience from time to time.

Burnout, however, is a response to prolonged, excessive stress that leaves an individual mentally and physically drained. Left unresolved, burnout can be a gateway to severe mental health conditions such as depression.

In a research paper published in Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, burnout had been defined as “a work-related syndrome characterised by chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.”

Clearly, the impact of burnout serves to be detrimental to every business where it is occurring, regardless of industry or market being served. Disengaged associates that are emotionally detached from your business won’t be interested in solving problems, supporting clients or making progress. Rather, disengaged employees can often be lacking in motivation and purpose, performing poorly or being openly frustrated and aggressive with colleagues.

What causes employee burnout at law firms?

There can be any number of reasons why employees experience burnout. In the same research paper (Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal) by Bakker and de Vries (2020), the causes of burnout include “workload, role stress, stressful events and work pressure.” All of which are common, and somewhat unavoidable, for associates in law firms.

Hefty workloads, high-intensity cases and unpredictable working hours can quickly pile on the stress, causing employees to become burned out – particularly for those in criminal or corporate law. While advisory law firms are often more predictable and steadier; the competitive nature of being in the legal industry can, in itself, case more junior members of your firm to experience burnout.

What are the signs and symptoms of employee burnout?

As HR leaders and managers, it is crucial that we are able to recognise the signs when an employee is becoming burned out. Left unresolved, burnout can lead to more severe mental health conditions such as clinical depression and anxiety.

The Mayo Clinic cites a number of typical employee burnout symptoms that may be recognisable in the workplace. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Employees becoming cynical or overly critical or aggressive at work
  • Employees struggling to ‘get going’ at work
  • Employees are irritable or impatient with co-workers or clients
  • A dip in productivity or employees finding it difficult to concentrate

However, it is important to bear in mind that the signs of a burned-out employee are not always visible. Such symptoms might include using drugs or alcohol to feel better, feeling disillusioned about their job, a change in their sleeping habits and a lack of feeling satisfied in their achievements.

How can HR leaders working at legal practices prevent employee burnout?

Create and promote mental health and wellbeing policies

Ensuring you have a comprehensive and accessible mental health and wellbeing procedure is key. Helping your employees to develop a better understanding of their own mental health, and how to support their peers’ mental health can go a long way in protecting your workforce from burnout.

Knowing how to recognise any changes in our own mental health is often the first stage in seeking guidance or support. An Employee Assistance Programme often provides resources, guidance and access to a counsellor or therapist. In a time when access to normal mental health services may be restricted or completely unavailable, a telephone call with a counsellor can be critical.

Ensure frequent check-ins

In a period of lockdowns, virtual meetings and social distancing; checking in with your employees regularly be the difference between an employee feeling connected to your law firm and feeling isolated. For those associates that live alone, these check-ins can be a source of social engagement with a colleague or line manager in a busy working week.

These check-ins can be particularly important for your more junior colleagues that are new to the legal profession. Despite the industry’s best efforts, there is still a stigma in junior lawyers around speaking out about their mental health. Instead, they simply accept that law is an ‘anxiety-inducing’ profession. This, in itself, can lead to intense levels of stress and ultimately, burn out. It is important that all of your employees feel able to speak out or access resources to support their mental health without any kind of repercussion or change in how they are perceived.

Promote good mental health practices

Provide your employees with the freedom and ability to practice activities that contribute to good mental health. Think about subsidised gym memberships, access to online yoga, meditation or tai chi classes, as well as providing resources on safeguarding their mental health.

Train mental health first aiders

Mental health first aiders in your business provide first-line support for any employees that are experiencing mental health issues at, or as a result of, work. These individuals are fully trained to provide first aid until an employee can receive the appropriate professional treatment.

These may be your existing emergency first aiders or simply compassionate members of your workforce that are able to recognise the early signs of any mental health issue, including burnout. It is key that your trained mental health first aiders can demonstrate empathy, respect and privacy, and can provide the bridge to professional help or advice.

Remember that your mental health first aiders and your managers are also susceptible to burnout. Supporting struggling colleagues while working their normal job roles can place your first aiders at risk of becoming overwhelmed by their own, and their colleagues, problems. Research by Gallup found that 32% of managers feel burned out at work very often or always, compared with 27% of individual contributors.

Source regular employee feedback

Often the most effective way to gauge the risk of burnout is to anonymously survey your employees to gain their feedback. Taking the pulse of employee mental health and understanding the suitability of your mental health services can help you to develop a culture which clearly prioritises the wellbeing of its employees and encourages wellbeing to become the norm in your organisation – rather than a nice-to-have.

Natural HR software is perfect for law firms – engage, manage and pay your people, and create comprehensive review processes at every level. Find out how Natural HR can alleviate stressful HR tasks, help you to upskill your workforce and attract and retain talent.

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