Burnout and law: What you need to know

October 11, 2016 at 10:00 AM

If you don’t “get” burnout – what it is and how to prevent it – chances are it will get you.

Law is notorious for taking young, motivated professionals and spitting them out as overworked, overstressed human beings who feel the need to continue working on holiday, at the dinner table, during the weekends.

It’s no secret: Law is responsible for some of the worst burnout rates of all professions.

So even if it’s not you, knowing the signs of burnout (and more importantly, how to prevent it happening in the first place) is one of the best things you can do if you’re in law practice.

So firstly, to define burnout:  There’s a big difference between a plain old stressful day, and an overriding feeling that it’s all too much.

According to well-respected non-profit healthcare provider Mayo Clinic, burnout is a “state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”

It’s caused by excessive and prolonged stress. You might have noticed yourself feeling increasingly cynical or critical at work, irritable or impatient with co-workers, that you’re losing sleep or suffering unexplained headaches.

You become disengaged, lose motivation and it’s a real drag to get out of bed each morning.

Now that’s not a fun mix.

If this sounds familiar, or you recognise this in someone you work with, it’s important you start looking for solutions.

Sites such as that of the New Zealand Law Society offer practical advice for lawyers, and could be of use.

Prominent psychologist Dr Amiram Elwork specializes in working with the legal profession, and he suggests first taking stock of the situation.

He says by the time most lawyers look for help, they’re at the point they’re thinking of quitting their job or getting out of the profession: “My usual advice on such matters is ‘slow down.’ While quitting your job or the law may in fact be the right thing to do, given the risks and costs involved, these should be options to consider only after you truly understand what has happened to you.”

There are three key steps to deal with job burnout:

1.       Assess the situation

Don’t let your work undermine your health. You’ll need to identify what’s fuelling your feeling of job burnout, then make a plan to address the issues.

This should include talking to those around you, whether that’s your co-workers or family, and seeing what they think of the situation.

Chances are – being a good ‘ol Kiwi – by the time you look to solve the problem it will be pretty bad.

Bite the bullet, it won’t get better by ignoring the problem.

2.       Evaluate your options

Discuss your specific concerns with your bosses or colleagues. Look at how you might be able to organise a more realistic workload, or deal with stresses better.

The Mayo Clinic suggests also honestly looking at your interests, skills and passions and how they line up with your work. Is there a big mismatch? Perhaps you’re not working in the right area.

Don’t feel you need to rush into anything, especially as burnout can leave you irrational. Seek advice.

3.       Rest, replenish, repeat

A good night’s sleep restores wellbeing and helps protect your health. Aim for at least 7-8 hours a night, and if work is keeping you awake at night, take a break.


Take a holiday. A real, no-workphone break where you can get away from it all, enjoy some time off and clear your head. It’s amazing the clarity that comes from a break.

It’s likely after a little time off, you’ll know exactly what needs to be done to solve the problem.

Beat the odds and be a lawyer who doesn’t experience burnout!

Tags: Job burnout Stress Stress management Mental health Prevention
Category: Interest Topics


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