Some law firms are already taking steps to address burnout and stress in the workplace, though a growing number of lawyers are dealing with unforgiving hours, relentless billing targets, and persistent demands from both management and clients, making those that work in the legal profession prone to burnout.

A survey conducted by YouGov claims that nine out of 10 lawyers have experienced increased stress and burnout.

Although a number of UK workers now experience a more flexible way of working, on average they are working longer hours than before the pandemic, taking shorter lunch breaks, and working through sickness. The blurring line between home and work life is also making it more of challenge to achieve the right work life balance.

What is burnout?​​​​​​​

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. The effects are felt physically, emotionally, and mentally.

What can cause burnout?​​​​​​​

Burnout can be caused by a number of factors which can be related to work, lifestyle, and personality traits. Some causes of burnout are:

  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Working in a high-pressure environment
  • A need to be in control, a reluctance to delegate to others
  • A lack of supportive relationships

As an employer you have a duty of care towards the wellbeing of your employees, and it is important that burnout is identified because, if left unaddressed, the effects are likely to get worse. The SRA noted in a March paper that it is considering altering rules so that law firms have a greater responsibility to tackle hostile work conditions, including an environment that causes stress and burnout.

What are the signs of burnout?​​​​​​​

The symptoms of burnout fall broadly into three categories:

  • Physical symptoms – feeling tired, frequent headaches, stomach problems​​​​​​​
  • Emotional symptoms – cynicism, detachment, a sense of failure
  • Behavioural symptoms – withdrawing from others, irritability, a lack of motivation

As with most things, prevention is better than a cure and, on an individual level, exercise, eating a balanced diet, practicing good sleep habits and asking for help are all useful.

As an employer, what can you do?

  • Support – listen to, empathise with, and generally check in with your employees. Weekly meetings between teams are an easy way to ensure workloads aren’t becoming too heavy.

    Some organisations, such as employee benefits specialists Unum and Canada Life, provide workshops to educate managers how to spot the signs of burnout and support employees who may be experiencing burnout, allowing them to take action before symptoms are too severe.

  • Awareness – raising awareness through wellbeing schemes, or training sessions will not only help others to identify the signs of burnout in others but also in themselves.

    Some law firms have already adopted tools to alleviate burnout at work. Simple changes, such as banning emails to be sent after the end of the day, or giving employees the choice to delay an email until the next morning, are schemes that can take the pressure off employees feeling they need to work beyond the end of the day.

  • Culture – treat employees with respect, with clear and open communication, in a non-blame environment where achievement is recognised.

    Along with this work environment, having a comprehensive employee benefits package, which provides services to address stress or burnout in the workplace will help in making it easier for employees and employers to find long-term solutions to these issues.

If you or anyone that you know may be affected by this topic, we would encourage you to talk to a your HR department, a friend, family members, or a healthcare professional as appropriate, or to contact the Samaritans https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/ ​​​​​​​