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March 19, 2009 11:30 AM

Legal Remedies: Burnt Out?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Jim Thornton

IStock_000001027282XSmall Q: With the economic meltdown, the associates here who still have jobs are working longer hours for dwindling pay. Part of me is relieved to have a job at all, but the other part feels I'm headed for burnout. My brain's already so overwhelmed I know I'm making mistakes. Any advice?

A: Researchers have long understood that chronic work stress takes a toll on both physical and emotional health. A recently published study in The American Journal of Epidemiology shows it's bad for your cognitive skills, too. An analysis of 2,214 civil servants revealed that those working over 55 hours a week fared much worse on tests of short-term memory and reasoning than those working standard hours. The longer the hours, the dumber they got.

Burnout is a real condition with progressively dire consequences for its victims.

"Burnout is a psychological syndrome that happens in response to chronic job stresses," explains Christina Maslach, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and pioneer of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the standard measurement tool for the disorder. "It's composed of three, interrelated dimensions."

The first step is mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. "People feel completely overwhelmed and used up," she explains. "There's a sense that the tank has run empty, that you can't possibly handle the next thing that's being demanded of you."

Next comes a gradual slide into cynicism. At first, this functions as a coping mechanism, a way of distancing yourself from impossible job demands. "We see people shift away from doing their best to doing the bare minimum," Maslach explains. "They cut corners and find reasons to minimize interactions with clients and coworkers." Eventually, cynicism about the job can blossom into contempt for the people you need to deal with.

In the final stage, burnout's worst victims are left with an abiding sense of personal failure--not just about your efficacy on the job, but about your value as a human being. "In the worst cases, it becomes an erosion of the human soul," says Maslach.

There are, of course, plenty of jobs where people work long hours and thrive--and not just because they're workaholics. A variety of factors in the workplace can either exacerbate or moderate job stresses. Research by Maslach, Michael Leiter, and other psychologists have found six red flags, in particular, that fuel the fires of burnout. Here are the dirty half-dozen:

1. Unrelieved overload. Working a 70-hour week is no picnic, but most of us can come through in a pinch to finish a critical project on time. Indeed, accomplishing the seemingly impossible--on an episodic basis--can actually stoke the ego. The problem comes when there's no rest between emergencies, when in extremis becomes de riguer. We need time to recover, recoup, and restore some sense of balance.

2. Lack of control. It's the classic double-bind: you know you're going to be held accountable for the results you produce, but you've got no say in how the job gets done.

3. Thanklessness. When it comes to rewarding a job well done, says Maslach, money alone is not what our highly social species craves. "What we've found psychologically," she says, "is that recognition and positive feedback from others plays an even more critical role. You bust your buns, you do a good job, but does anybody care?"

4. Team dispirit. ERs seem like they should be a cauldron for burnout given the frequent chaos and stressful life-and-death medical decisions that must be executed in the blink on an eye. In reality, ER personnel enjoy some of the lowest burnout rates in health care, the result of the tight-knit, "we're all in this together" bonds that form between team members. By contrast, orderlies and nurses in a general medical unit typically care for patients recovering from everything from plastic surgery to colonoscopies.  The interaction between doctors and staff is irregular and impersonal--and this means an intense "band of brothers" espirit de corps rarely forms.

5. Unfairness. Research into the relatively new areas of social justice and equity have confirmed the seemingly obvious: most people don't like being screwed, and will take active steps to get revenge if they think it's happened to them. Of all the potential burnout pitfalls at a workplace, a sense that the rules have been rigged for another's benefit generates the greatest resentment and hostility.

6. Breaking bad. Finally, most of us live by a moral code of some sort. Work demands, unfortunately, do not always harmonize with our sense of right and wrong. If you are being asked to do something that severely conflicts with your values, realize that giving in can leave you wondering one day where your "good self" went--or worse, lead to an indictment.

None of these conditions are easy to fix, particularly if your supervisors refuse to make reasonable accommodations. We humans are, for the most part, resilient creatures, and we can suffer a fair amount of abuse before we break. If you suspect that your work stress right now is temporary, or that a particularly onerous overlord is close to retirement, or there's a chance for you to escape to a different department where the morale is better, it makes sense to stick it out for now.

On the other hand, if you know you're in a bad place and there's no sign things are going to improve, take steps to make an exit. It is a scary prospect, I know. But staying until burnout steals your spirit is a worse fate by far--not only for your psyche, but for your future livelihood as well.

Pierce Johnson Howard, Ph.D., director of research at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, N.C., has looked at the long-term consequences of burnout. Once the process begins, he says, you've already begun a one-way march down the plank. You can quit now with your reputation not yet in complete tatters--or get fired in the not too distant future. "There's another consideration you also need to keep in mind," Howard adds. "When people have crept into full burnout, it can take a year or longer to fully recover."

Jim Thornton is a National Magazine Award–winning writer whose work has been published in such magazines as Men's Health, National Geographic Adventure, AARP: The Magazine, GQ, Backpacker, and Glamour. Thornton also is a master swimmer who blogs ablout the experience at http://forums.usms.org/blog.php?u=26

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This sounds like my son's high school. I see the symptoms every day. Caused by overwork, constantly rising standards, fierce competition, but unlike the adult economy even the top students see dim prospects of ultimate reward. The Malthusian model has reached every age group.

That brought back memories!

I remember suffering from burnout like that when my kids were both little.

burnout is nothing! be a positive thinker! stressed, depressed, feel useless, and many more bad feelings shall be got rid of! your time is so dear to be spent doing or feeling bad things. So wakey... wakey....

Sounds like Jim is describing my job.

This brought me back to a period when my job was almost unbearable. I was much younger then and somehow managed to weather a period of five years when I dreaded going to work. Fortunately, that branch of my outfit closed and I got transferred to a much much better place. Not sure I could take such a long awful period if it happened again at my age now.

I suspect most partners at large law firms suffer from this. Unrelenting high stress and insane hours, year after year, cause many negative effects. It's a tragedy that the profession has become obsessed with profits. Folks, there ain't no hearsts with luggage racks!

a very timely article given the added sting of the downed economy and it's affect on all.
it would be good to follow-up with an article reminding people about the positive things/steps that each can do to improve their personal situations in times of burn out and stress...taking the time to eat wholesomely, spending quality time with friends and in nature, exercise, reading a good book, etc.!!!

Reminds me of the good old days in investment banking. At the time, I thrived on 80-100 hour work weeks. A badge of honor. Until marriage and fatherhood made me realize there was more to life

This is an excellent article that graphically describes a toxic work atmosphere and its consequences. This type of situation creates "an injured sense of entitlement" that serves as the basis for (among other things) the egomaniacal bonuses given at places like AIG. This type of work practice is therefore detrimental to our country's soul and is to be condemned!

I know it's odd for the author of a piece to comment on his own article, but I just wanted to add two things.

First, I wrote this story under the influence of Provigil, aka, modafanil, a prescription medication used to treat narcolepsy and sometimes used by cramming students as a "smart drug." Yesterday, just as this burn out story was being posted, an article on Provigil appeared in JAMA, essentially arguing there is no free lunch: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/301/11/1148 Anyhow, this seemed curiously ironic.

The second item is in response to Alice Hall's excellent recommendation we all try to find antidotes to the corrosive stress in our lives. For me, masters swimming has proven the best solution.

Consider hitting the pool sometime. There's nothing like water to quench burnout, from smoldering embers to a full-blown inferno!

After years in the legal profession, both as an associate and now on the biz dev side, I have seen the ravages of burn out both in myself and others. You raise interesting points - eventually, rising to the occasion too often leads to a feeling of contempt for the very people you rely on to help make your work life go smoothly. Self-care is very important and yes, swimming, is an excellent antidote to stress!

Face it -- Big Law is an atrocious profession that sucks the life out of people. You can think of ways to try to mitigate it a bit, but the entire business model would fall apart if people were sane and worked 9 - 5. All the "gotcha" one upmanship, endless picayune wordsmithing, and borderline autistic obsession with minutiae are the bread and butter of the law, and guarantee this endless grind.

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