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It’s no secret law firms are known for high stress environments where competition for legal services and demanding client expectations create a relentless pace for “more, better, faster.”

When you combine this competitive atmosphere with highly-driven individuals committed to success both internal and external to their firms, you have a culture ripe for burnout.

Our bodies are designed to handle stress in bursts, requiring sufficient time to recover.  I repeat: sufficient time to recover. And that is where we are failing. In today’s world of continuous connectivity where work never stops, we have come to demand marathons from ourselves instead of sprints (short-term capacity versus long-term sustainability). When we deny our bodies the chance to recover, they become addicted to the adrenaline rush stress releases and we lose our ability to detach and relax.  The result of chronic stress and the feeling that you’ve lost control over your work and life? Burnout.   

What it feels like:
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Negativity and cynicism
  • Physical ailments including gastrointestinal problems
  • Short temper and edginess
  • Finding fault and/or blaming others
  • Using alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms
  • Loss of interest in relationships, sex or other activities
Where it comes from:
  • Heavy workload and long hours
  • Loss of control over one’s own schedule and priorities
  • Pressure to take on more with the same or fewer resources
  • Inability to say “no”
  • Unrealistic deadlines

Sound familiar?  Let’s face it – you only have so much control over these factors in your environment.  But that doesn’t mean you are powerless. Effectively dealing with stress is about managing the only component you have complete control over – you. A “Prevention Burnout Plan” can help you commit to certain behaviors and daily habits that will strengthen your ability to manage stress, avoid burnout and help you love your work again.

Burnout Prevention Plan

1. Commit to maintaining a positive attitude.

Take a moment each day to focus on something positive that happened or a situation that you handled especially well.  Intentionally approach situations from the “glass half full” as opposed to “half empty” approach.  If you find yourself focusing on the negative or being overly critical of others or yourself, heed this early warning sign and work to refocus your energies in a positive direction. Catch yourself when you slip, and intentionally change your thought process.

Take action: Take 5 minutes on your commute home to mentally note three things that you are grateful for, or make a list of your “wins” for the day. Training your brain this way will help you focus more attention on the positive parts of your day and work.

2. Take personal responsibility for your emotional and physical wellbeing.

Despite the endless mantras on the benefits associated with a healthy lifestyle, stress tricks you into believing you do not need to properly care for your body.  In fact, stress leads to false coping mechanisms – alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar – which actually increase rather than decrease your body’s ability to manage stress in a healthy way.

Take action: Don’t fall victim to these lies – maintain a healthy diet, exercise daily, avoid alcohol and caffeine in excess, and get 6-8 hours of sleep a night.

3. Develop your emotional intelligence (EQ).

Emotional intelligence is your ability to see yourself as others see you, to effectively manage your own emotions and your response to others.  It is the ability to relate to and connect with others and manage conflict.  Great leadership starts with understanding your own strengths and struggles while being willing to work daily at being a more effective leader and human being.  The better you understand your own talents and areas for improvement, the more you appreciate others’ strengths and struggles.  This increased awareness leads to fewer blind spots and a more balanced perspective resulting in improved communication and relationships.  Increased levels of EQ help you anticipate and prepare for conflict and, most critically, not react to or take things personally.

Take action: Make a list of your areas of strength and struggle. Share it with your team and ask for constructive feedback on what you perceive versus what your coworkers experience. Encourage them to do the same.

Most would agree that it’s exponentially harder to bounce back from burnout than it is to prevent it, so the goal is to create a lifestyle that doesn’t allow stress to flourish.  Stress manifests differently by person, but understanding how your body responds and practicing good habits can reduce the risk of long-term impact. Take on your personal plan the same way you would a project at work – develop a realistic plan and then commit to it with fervor.

The article was authored by Calibrate Legal alumna Carol Crawford, SHRM-SCP, SPHR

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