Emily Knowles, Psychologist, Consultant and Researcher

“The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” – Lily Tomlin

‘Burnout’ and ‘psychological safety’ are arguably two of the biggest exports from workplace psychology to enter the public lexicon from the Covid-era. Burnout is a long-established and deeply studied psychological phenomenon. Its prevalence has increased in recent times, especially amongst the lawyer population. The World Health Organisation defines burnout as an occupational syndrome. This means that, unlike a regular health condition, the work (the job), worker (the person) and workplace (the organisation) are inextricably linked.

A comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the topic facilitates protecting, promoting, and making sustainable the mental health and wellbeing of practising lawyers – and wider members of the profession alike. This article looks beneath the science, behind the human experience, and beyond current tropes.

Beneath burnout

Understanding the topic of burnout, from a science-informed perspective, allows a grappling with the observable and measurable components of the phenomenon.

Before diving into burnout, let’s consider worker engagement. Before burnout came along, employee engagement was organisational psychology’s darling. It was a variable heavily loaded with desirable worker outcomes – such as increased productivity and profitability, and decreased absenteeism and turnover. All workplaces wanted to increase their employees’ engagement. Now, arguably all workplaces want to reduce their employees’ incidences of (or risk of causing) burnout. Burnout has traditionally been defined as the ‘other side’ of engagement: i.e., the two opposite ends of an occupational wellbeing continuum, when it comes to energy.[1] If engagement is all about vigour, dedication, and absorption, then burnout is characterised by cynicism and exhaustion. There’s a debate about whether the third dimension of burnout is inefficacy (i.e., a lack of self-efficacy), a sense of reduced personal accomplishment, and/or reduced productivity.[2]

There’s an ongoing tension about whether this classical approach – juxtaposing engagement to burnout – is correct (or desirable). Or whether burnout is better situated a) in a wellbeing and performance framework, b) in context of professional quality of life (think compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma), or c) some blend thereof. When we start to talk about energy, it’s evident that we – as human beings – have a number of capacities:

    • Physical (our body)
    • Mental (our thoughts, and head space)
    • Emotional (our feelings, and heart space); and
    • Social (our interconnectedness). 

Burnout is particularly theoretically associated with emotional exhaustion – hence the link to compassion fatigue.

But what is it about the work of lawyers, in particular, that can (and does) bring on burnout? Notably, the demands of the job are complex and varied. Depending on which area of law you practice, the mental, emotional and social (and sometimes physical) demands will be taxing in differing ways, and to different degrees. The burnout literature details the importance of two ‘p’ factors: precipitating factors, and predisposing factors.[1] First, precipitating factors are considered the job demands, and stressors involved in the work. And by work, we mean the ‘paid work’, and the unpaid work (i.e., all the unpaid load that come with the job – and the toll those things take on a person in their line of work).

When do you notice your capacities are a) at their best and b) waning? What are your own personal signals (for example when you know your body, brain or feelings need a break)?

Behind burnout

Turning from the work to the worker and going behind the curtain to explore the topic of burnout from a more human-informed experience. Here it’s relevant to consider the second ‘p’ factor of burnout: predisposing factors. These are individual differences that create an increased risk or vulnerability for burnout.[1] There is an abundance of research that articulates the ‘lawyer personality’: being comprised of certain personality traits, derailers and values, which are differentiated from non-lawyers. Such personality traits include achievement orientation, competitiveness, and emphasis on rights and obligations over emotions; a strong preference for logical and clinical thinking.[2] Another predisposing factor can be an individual’s personal stress response pattern to (and tolerance for) stressors (which are the precipitating factors).

Boundary management and self-care are vital components, and also typically major barriers, for most lawyers’ wellbeing – due to systemic factors of legal practice, as well as the lawyer personality. Lawyers, after all, are human beings, and that comes with a host of imperfections and fallibilities. Sometimes it’s more about overplayed strengths, rather than a deficit or lack of any quality or effort.

How might some of your sensibilities make you inherently more vulnerable to burnout?

Turning now from the worker to the workplace. There are features of the work, worker and workplace that contribute to the prevalence and risk of burnout in the legal profession. Workplace factors include cultural norms – think the dominance of the billable hour, stoic standards, and the mindset invoked by the saying ‘that’s the way things are done around here.’

What happens in your workplace that could be a) protecting against or b) exacerbating burnout amongst employees?

Beyond burnout

Given the science, and deeply human experience of burnout, what next? How does this knowledge influence future practices for lawyer and law firms? We have to move beyond the current models and frameworks.

Image Source: Harvard Business Review (2019)

First, some of the old tropes have to go. The overused visual of the charred matchstick (above) isn’t helpful, or accurate, anymore. Working in the law, and engaging in this high octane profession, isn’t it fair to think that most of us will – at some point (if we haven’t already) – have an ‘Icarus moment?’ By that I mean flying too close to the sun, on account of our ambition. Hence melting our wax-held wings. In this scenario even applying the highest grade sunscreen, as a preventative measure, isn’t going to mitigate the final outcome. There’s also a place for recovery pathways: highlighting the importance of resting, restoring, and reviving.

Second, the old models we’ve been operating under can be updated. The Covid-era saw not only burnout, but also “rust-out”.[1] If burnout is the version of energy being depleted, then rust-out is the version where energy is stagnant. The dangers of hyper and hypo engagement, respectively, must be considered.

Third and finally, what about if a new metaphor – one replacing the charred matchstick – were to represent the phenomenon of burnout? One that acknowledges the power of rest and regeneration. Something that’s more aligned with, and inspired by, cycles. Much like nature cycles through seasons, perhaps we too, as humans (and lawyers), can expect seasons to our wellbeing – and accept that burnout is an enhanced risk factor for our profession. We can do all we can to avoid it (ie keeping in check precipitating and predisposing factors, at the work, worker and workplace levels), but when it hits, what then? Rest and recovery strategies (at the preventative, and restorative ends of the experience) are key.

How and when could you more intentionally integrate rest rituals into your practice of a) the law and b) self-care?

While ‘beating’ burnout may be aspirational, what’s needed is a reframed problem statement. How can we adopt a more holistic approach towards sustainable performance and wellbeing in the law? How can we change our relationship with burnout? How can we emerge from the other side? The answers are likely not straightforward, linear, or singular. The subtle and complex questions we need to ask are best informed by an integrated intervention approach towards workplace mental health: equally preventing harm, promoting the positive, and managing illness.[2] Moving forward, supporting the legal profession, and legal professionals, requires a finely tuned balance of applied science and humanity.

Emily Knowles is a registered and practising psychologist working in Australia. She started her career in the law, is passionate about lawyer wellbeing, and is currently a member of the Institute For Well-Being In Law Policy Committee.

[1] Trógolo, M.A., Morera, L. P., Castellano, E., Spontón, C., and Medrano, L. (2020). Work engagement and burnout: real, redundant, or both? A further examination using a bifactor modelling approach, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, DOI 10.1080/1359432X.2020.1801642.

[2] Trógolo et al. (2020).

[3] Parker, G., Tavella, G., and Eyers., K. (2021). Burnout: a guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery. Allen & Unwin: Australia.

[4] Parker, Tavella, and Eyers (2021).

[5] Daicoff, S. (2004). Lawyer, Know Thyself: a psychological analysis of personality strengths and weaknesses. American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

[6] Palmer, S., and Cooper, C. (2010). How to Deal with Stress. Kogan Page: London.

[7] LaMontagna et al. (2014). Workplace mental health: developing an integrated intervention approach, BMC Psychiatry, 14:131.