Are the staff at your law firm at risk of burnout?

August 09, 2018

As reported by The Timeslast year, lawyers in London work longer hours than those anywhere else in the UK.

Recruitment firm Douglas Scott surveyed more than 2,200 UK lawyers and found that the average working week in London was 45 hours – nine hours longer than they were contracted to work. “Banking and capital markets lawyers” worked the longest hours, “ahead of litigation and arbitration specialists”.

The UK national average working week for lawyers is 40 hours – nine hours more than the UK all-sector average (source: ONS– although this figure includes part-time workers). And trainees and junior lawyers often have to work very long hours (some average more than 12 hours a day) – it’s perhaps little wonder that a quarter suffers severe stress at work.

Research suggests that, enabled by technology, many employees frequently work at home in their own time. Research published by office space provider Regus suggests thata third of UK employees now works at the weekend or while on holiday, thereby increasing risk of burnout.

Overachiever syndrome

Having to occasionally work late is perhaps inevitable, but when it happens over a sustained period it poses great risk. In the US, the “psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees” has been estimated to cost up to $190bn (£143bn) a yearin healthcare spending alone.

Many staff and their employers aren’t doing enough to tackle risk of burnout, which has been described as a “big problem in the UK” (and even a “sinister and insidious epidemic”). A 2015 Virgin-commissioned YouGov survey suggested that 51 per cent of full-time UK employees had experienced anxiety or burnout in their job.

According to Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter, writing for Psychology Today: “Burnout is one of those road hazards in life that high-achievers really should be keeping a close eye out for, but sadly – often because of their ‘I can do everything’ personalities – they rarely see it coming.”

As she explains, because high-achievers are highly passionate about their work, they fail to realise they’re working excessive hours or taking on too much, which makes them “ripe for burnout”. Some commentators go as far as to use “overachiever syndrome” as an alternative name for burnout.

What is burnout?

Bourg Carter describes burnout as a “State of chronic stress that leads to: physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment”.

Writing for The Guardian, Liz Fraser says burnout isn’t “just feeling a bit knackered in the mornings, missing a few deadlines or an inbox full of emails you forget to reply to.” Rather, burnout is a “total system breakdown, after prolonged, unmanageable stress and emotional fatigue.” At its worst, burnout can leave people feeling exhausted and unable to function. It builds up over time, often caused by working long hours over a sustained period.

The symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue, insomnia, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, short-temperedness – even chest pains and shortness of breath.

Managing risk of burnout

Burnout can not only damage productivity and lead to employee absence, but it can ultimately lead to them leaving. This can mean your law firm loses good people, while increasing your recruitment and training costs. So, how do you manage risk of staff burnout?

It must be a priority for your law firm and managers should actively discourage staff behaviour that increases risk and be able to recognise the signs of burnout (train them if necessary).

Staff should be made aware of the dangers and be provided with stress-management guidance. Your law firm should provide a culture of support, collaboration and teamwork. Effective communication is also vital, with team members feeling able to discuss workloads, deadlines and other burnout-inducing pressures with their managers. Expectations and aims should be kept realistic and achievable.

Healthy work-life balance

According to Joel Upton, blogging for the Breathe HR website, staff should be encouraged to take their full holiday allowance, while “regular breaks and a decent lunch hour will also go a long way to avoiding staff burnout.” Your law firm should promote a healthy work-life balance, with managers leading by example, says Upton. Regular constructive feedback should be given to staff – and praise when due.

Writing for Personnel Todaywebsite, Anna Kotwinski believes it’s high time that businesses considered the impact of “digital overload” on staff. Digital technology (“and the smartphone in particular”), has helped to create a world where “employees increasingly feel the need to be available around the clock,” she observes.

“Staff need guidance on how to manage the digital distractions in their lives, both at work and at home, to help them in an age when information overload and work-life balance is at crisis point,” she warns.

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