Are you familiar with any of the following:
- Feeling like you are losing control or needing to take control of your life, or having difficulty relaxing;
- Mood swings;
- Trouble sleeping;
- Uncharacteristic mistakes;
- A sudden lack of confidence;
- Feeling sad or down;
- Crying for no apparent reason;
- Feeling worried or anxious;
- Having difficulty focusing or remembering;
- Drinking or smoking more;
- Erratic behaviour;
- Losing or gaining weight;
- Poorer personal hygiene;
- Looking tired;
- A work performance dip;
- Frequent cold and infections, stomach problems or clenching your jaw frequently?
All of the above are some of the emotional, cognitive and physical signs of burnout. While good stress can give us a burst of motivation and help us meet daily challenges, chronic performance-related stress is likely to lead to burnout.
If you are are experiencing these signs, you are not alone. Data from a survey carried out by the legal charity LawCare has shown that out of 1700 respondents, 69% had experienced poor mental health (clinically or self-diagnosed) in the 12 months before completing the survey. Respondents aged 26 to 35 experienced the highest levels of burnout, which were related to the levels of autonomy and psychological safety experienced.
High-achieving and ambitious young professionals often struggle to say no to instructions from a partner or someone above them in the hierarchical structure of the firm or practice when they feel burnt out. Whilst this approach is completely understandable, it isn't sustainable and can be a fast track to mental health issues.
4 things you can do to preventing burnout
There are things that you can do to ensure that you don't end up in a situation where you feel like you're getting close to the edge.
Let go of perfectionism
A lot of us place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Yet we won't always be able to function at maximum capacity or produce our best work at all times. The last thing that we want is to add a layer of shame and guilt to an already difficult day. Both of these emotions can be toxic and need to be processed and addressed. For example, it's important to recognise who's making the harsh judgment - is it really those around you or are you your own worst critic? Make sure that you invest measured mental effort into a task.
Set aside time to observe and manage your personal and professional stressors
Allocate a weekly time to be aware of how stress manifests in your mind and body. This will also allow you to observe when things are good and how to sustain your working pattern, as well as when you may need to go back to the drawing board and address some of the challenges that you face.
We now know that our bodies often harbour the stresses that we carry in our day to day lives, often impacting the way we function. It's all too easy to ignore these physical red flags, but movement, motor and sensory skills are all known to play a significant part in the development and maintenance of good mental health. It takes courage to listen to our bodies and to make the necessary changes to clear the roadblocks ahead, but the courage pays off. If you see signs of burnout, take a step back to re-evaluate your priorities.
"My wish is that, as a junior lawyer, I had understood and listened more to my body and what it was trying to tell me about how stressed I was, dealing with all the huge cases and important clients that I had to juggle. I would get all sorts of aches and pains, and caught badly every virus going round, leading to a high number of sick days and my immune system going through the floor. But even though I regularly saw my GP, in those days few people understood the connection between mental stress and physical symptoms, and I missed out on all the warning signs I was being sent. It was only after moving out of London and taking a far easier role that my health came back to me and I gradually came to realise the body/mind connection that we know a lot more about these days. It perhaps is obvious why nowadays I help many of my lawyer clients manage their stress as a key part of our coaching work. So I would encourage everyone in a high-pressure job to pay careful attention to your body as well as your mind, and be open to the idea that everything about you is connected."
Be aware of your diet, drinking and recreational drug-taking
We've all done it - reaching out for that first alcoholic drink after a stressful day, indulging in the comfort of fast food and treats or the escapism and chemical highs of recreational drugs. Why not? It's our reward for getting through another day. However, habits are born quickly and die slowly - sometimes becoming addictions. A seemingly harmless comfort taken to extreme becomes self harm. Once a habit begins to affect our physical wellbeing and our ability to enjoy healthy sleep patterns, it can accelerate that journey towards burnout. Acknowledge that something needs to change. Here is how good mental health looks like [link]
Work with a coach or a therapist
It may be useful to find a safe space where you can voice your concerns and have one-to-one support. Marc Mason, solicitor and senior lecturer, explains:
"The working conditions of lawyers expose them to factors which can harm their mental health and wellbeing in ways that are not commonly found elsewhere. Not only are lawyers subject to a particularly demanding working culture but many are routinely exposed to their clients’ experiences of upsetting and traumatic events. We know that this is exacerbated by a stigma within the profession against discussing mental health issues. Until those in the profession can enact meaningful change in working practices it can be very difficult indeed to seek, and to find, help dealing with these stressors. Counselling, psychotherapy, supervision, peer-support, and coaching are just some of the avenues to safely begin to reach out for the support needed for a sustainable and meaningful career."
With awareness of our current state of mind and a strategy to take care of our wellbeing, we can become better able to balance the high demands of a professional career. These are unprecedented times and have resulted in much re-evaluation of priorities. If you truly care about your career, you must look after your mental health.