Burnout has become a key topic of workplace conversation – wellbeing initiatives to combat the issue are increasingly common and are now seen as a cornerstone of workplace culture and employee satisfaction.

It is widely recognised that if staff are unable to cope with the stress of their workload, or if other factors are causing increased distress, this will carry over into their work performance and overall job fulfillment.

Tackling burnout, then, is imperative, and this is especially true in the legal profession. Law is notorious for heavy workloads, long hours and high levels of stress, as demonstrated in popular TV shows like Suits or Silk. But, in many cases, this stereotype can unfortunately be accurate.

Research has found that nearly two-thirds of legal professionals have experienced burnout as a result of their work. One in ten say they are getting less than five hours of sleep per night, and less than 25 per cent feel supported by their firm during times of stress or burnout.

So, what does burnout involve, and how can legal firms help to reduce it?

What is burnout?

Mental health professionals and advocates have been careful to emphasise the difference between manageable or ‘everyday’ stress and burnout. Everyone experiences stress at points in their life and often at work. Some people thrive in high stress environments or even seek out situations that challenge their mental capacity.

But burnout is more than a bout of frustration or feeling of overwhelmed. Common symptoms include chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism and a lost sense of the importance of the work being done. Burnout is persistent and is solely related to workplace stress, rather than stress in other areas of life. And it is unlikely to be solved by quick tricks, like exercise and getting more sleep.

In the legal sector, some primary triggers of burnout have been recognised. Forbes identifies high workloads, lack of thanks or recognition, disconnect between firm and employee (whether through values or perceived favouritism) and lack of autonomy as potential contributing factors to legal burnout. It is also far more likely to occur in younger lawyers, aged between 26 and 35.

How do we solve legal burnout?

As already mentioned, legal burnout is not a simple problem to solve. The culture surrounding legal practice can have a tendency to glorify overworking, speed, and precision, all of which increase employee stress and can lead to significant mental health challenges. Adapting the way law firms operate is the key to reducing legal burnout.

While periods of under resourcing or high volumes of urgent client work are issues unlikely to be resolved quickly or easily, firms can implement various measures to start alleviating the stress felt by their lawyers, and thus begin reducing the level of legal burnout. A few examples include:

Ensure people are not overworking

This means making sure they are taking the holiday they’re owed and not checking emails whilst they are away. Lawyers do sometimes need to work unsociable hours, but increasing flexibility of hours can help mitigate the impact this will have on their health.

Be open about mental wellbeing

Initiating regular catch-ups with line managers, advertising mental health services provided by the employer and making mental wellbeing a more comfortable topic of conversation within the office all help people to know that their company cares. It demonstrates a recognition of mental wellbeing and that no one is alone in their struggles.

Increase engagement

Regular communication is key to make people feel part of the firm. Demonstrating gratitude for their work, providing constructive feedback and ensuring they understand new initiatives and changes will help to ensure that they feel valued and, in turn, will be reflected in their renewed appreciation for their work.

Reducing legal burnout is essential to ensure the retention of quality lawyers in the profession and all law firms have a responsibility to support the wellbeing of their people. While change may take time, initiating conversations around mental wellbeing and actively working to change the culture of the legal profession will benefit all involved in the practice of law.

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