Lawyer Sam Gaylord blogs, “You might have already come to experience the considerable amount of stress associated with being solo, but if you are still transitioning, please don’t make the mistake of underestimating what is involved in running your own business. It’s not the same as being an employee or associate, and the more realistic you are about the demands that will be placed on you, the better you will be able to deal with feelings of overwhelm.” Read the Blog
Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions, your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen
Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face. Before he said a word, before I asked him how his practice had been going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down. As we spoke over coffee, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – depression.
As we spoke, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – Depression.
“No, I don’t think so, Tom. You seem pretty burn-out, though,” I said.
According to an ABA Journal article, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.
This is one of the conclusions contained in a recent report on the future of the legal profession prepared by The New York Bar Association.
“Consumers have become more suspicious of institutions,” the report says, and clients are less willing to take their lawyer’s advice at face value and more willing to sue when they are unhappy. Technology is also changing client demands.
“Electronic communication has fueled a culture in which clients want more legal information, answers on the spot, and lawyers who can interpret, rather than simply provide, information,” the report says.The result is more specialization and an emphasis on ability to deliver higher quality services at a lower cost and in less time.”
This was certainly true in Tom’s case. There were no limits to the demands put on him – by both others and himself – to be better, cheaper, and run faster. As if he were a machine. He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.
Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule. It’s also fueled by a common personality trait found in many lawyers: perfectionism.
Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. writes:
“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: ‘If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.’ Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.”
“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”
Out of Sync With Core Values
Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”
My friend Tom is in this boat. He works for an insurance defense firm. He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person. The culture of his firm, however, tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials. He hates to do this but doesn’t know what else to do. He has a family to support after all. He feels stuck at his job.
He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.
There are, however, telltale signs.
Burnout’s 10 Milestones
- Over-commitment (always in motion)
- Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
- Idealistic standards
- Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
- Lack of help and assistance
- Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
- Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
- Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
- Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
- Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no
Similarities Between Depression and Burnout
While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.
Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.
- Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
- The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.
Differences Between Depression and Burnout
Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is, therefore, more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.
- Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
- When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
- Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.
A Strategy for Avoiding Burnout
It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:
- Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
- Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
- Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
- Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
- Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
- Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
- Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
- Consider changing jobs. Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
- Consider changing careers. Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision. It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.
Further reading —
The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder
The Reflective Counselor: Daily Meditations for Lawyers by F. Gregory Coffey and Maureen C. Kessler
Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine
Lawyer Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – ABA Journal
Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work
Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2016
Depression is tough. Stress is also tough. Being depressed and stressed at the same time is even tougher. As a person who struggles with depression and has to manage stress on a daily basis, I have some good news for you:
Managing stress while being depressed is possible if you have a plan.
Depression has been a part of my life from as early as I can remember. Like a never-ending fog, I walk through it each day. As I have gotten older, I have discovered that it manifests itself in a variety of ways.
● Sometimes it feels like anger.
● Sometimes it feels like sadness.
● Sometimes it feels like emptiness.
● Sometimes it causes me physical pain.
● Sometimes it is a combination of the above.
● Sometimes it is all of the above.
Like most children, I wasn’t as aware of my thoughts and feelings as I am now, as an adult. At it’s worst my depression became extremely frustrating and overwhelming. The only way I knew how to cope with it was to act out.
Acting out included violent outbursts and harming myself.
● Acting out got me hospitalized 3 times in a psychiatric hospital.
● Acting out got me expelled from 3 schools.
● Acting out lead me to try and take my own life at age 10.
● Acting out mad friendships and dating difficult.
Nowadays, I still experience depression. Fortunately, I don’t act out like I did as a child. Through therapy, support groups, and being a mental health speaker, I have learned that there are other people who struggle with depression, too.
In addition to depression, I also get stressed out from time to time. Stress can be the result of challenges at work, at home, or in my personal life. Sometimes stress is the result of living your life. Let’s face it, life can sometimes just be overwhelming.
Through learning to manage my depression, I’ve also learned to better manage my stress. I’ve learned the hard way that being stressed while you are depressed is a crisis waiting to happen. If you don’t have a plan in place to manage both, it can end up costing you your job, your health, your relationships, and worst of all, your life.
Here are some tips that I have learned to help me cope. They are part of my plan to manage my depression and stress:
1. Get sun every day
According to Healthline, “Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. This is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused.”
My goal is to shoot for a half an hour of sun. Ironically, an hour before I began writing this article. I was feeling extremely stressed and sad. I spent about a half an hour in the sun and am feeling much better.
2. Exercise every day
Like sun, it’s important that I keep my body moving, even if it’s just a quick ten-minute walk in the morning. In fact, you can walk and get sun at the same time. The combination of both, even for a short period of time will do wonders for your stress level and depression.
My trainer and nutritionist, Maik Weidenbach, has helped me manage both my stress level and depression with customized plans. Check out his article, Depression and Exercise: 10 Tips to Stay Motivated and Strong and his book 101 Fitness Myths.
3. Writing Things Down
When you are feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, upset, anxious, etc…, a yellow legal pad can be your best friend. By taking a few minutes to write down everything that is on your mind you can quickly clear your head. As you clear your head, you will feel better.
Also, by seeing what is on your mind written down on paper, you will feel less overwhelmed. I am not sure exactly why this works, but it does. Ironically it’s an exercise that many therapists and professional organizers give their clients.
As I am finishing up writing this article, I feel a bit depressed and a bit stressed. Regardless, it’s not stopping me from being productive because I have a plan in place that I used to take care of myself today.
Managing your stress while being depressed is doable, but you have to be proactive. I encourage you to make a commitment to try one of the ideas listed above every day for the next week. I also encourage you to spend the next week creating a plan for yourself to manage your stress.
What will you include in your plan to manage stress while depressed?
Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2016
Great tips for lawyers who want to keep the kettle of stress from boiling over. Read the Blog
From the Diversity & the Bar Magazine, a comprehensive article filled with stories from lawyers that struggle with depression and anxiety and the professionals that try to help them. Read the News
From the Anxious Lawyer website, bloggers Jenna Cho and Karen Gifford write, “Frequently, when we experience anxiety, our first reaction is to ignore, dismiss, or to deny. This reaction to our anxiety, may be temporary and make the feeling and somatic experiences go away, but long-term leads to unhappiness, depression and additional anxiety”. Read the Blog
You are not alone in your discontent with law practice. Lawyers continue to ask whether other work, either in law or another field, would better suit their interests and improve their quality of life. Here are some tips from career coach Edward Honnnold about steps you can take now to make changes. Read the Blog
The legal profession can be extraordinarily stressful. Lawyers need techniques to dial down pain, worry and stress, and now an American Bar Association book helps them to do so through yoga. Read the News
Check out these 7 tips for managing stress for BigLaw Attorneys. Read the Blog
Over the years, I’ve read too many books to count about stress, anxiety, and depression. Like most people, I’m always looking for tips and clues about how to handle things better.
Some of these books have turned out to be real stinkers. Others, retreads of books and articles that have said the same things over and over again.
I have found some gems, though. Books that have something original to say, or are well-written.
I’ve found that the most useful ones make me want to read them further after the first 25-pages, or so. Good rule of thumb.
I hope you find help, hope, and insight between their pages.
The title of this book grabbed my attention because it seemed to capture so much more than just stress management. Stress management is truly about managing being overworked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed.
According to the author, the key is not time management but “stuff management — taking control of all those tasks to do, people to see, commitments and obligations to fulfill. Mismanagement of all that “to-do” stuff is what leads to stress. Emmett combines quick, easy-to-digest tips and infectious good humor to give readers positive ways to handle stress and their overly busy lives.
You can also check out her website for other helpful tips and ideas.
Monkey Mind: A Memoir on Anxiety — Daniel Smith
I first read about Smith’s book in a New York Times article called “Panic Buttons“. This memoir on stress and anxiety is not only informative and insightful, it’s well-written and funny.
The long list of things that, over the years, have made Daniel Smith nervous includes sex, death, work, water, food, air travel, disease, amateur theater, people he’s related to and people he’s not related to, so the prospect of a book review probably wouldn’t seem like a very big deal to him. Or would it?
This fleet, exhausting memoir, is an attempt to grapple with a lifetime of anxiety: to locate its causes, describe its effects and possibly identify a cure. Or, if not a cure, at least a temporary cessation of the worry that’s been plaguing him since his youth.
Check out his website, The Monkey Mind Chronicles, for more interesting stuff.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and best-selling New York Times author.
Hardwiring Happiness lays out a simple method that uses the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace.
In an interview discussing the book, he states:
“So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy”.
Check out his website for more information about the book and his suggestions.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping – Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.
Why don’t zebras get ulcers–or heart disease, clinical anxiety, diabetes and other chronic diseases–when people do?
In a fascinating that looks at the science of stress, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky presents an intriguing case, that people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren’t designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life – – like sitting in daily traffic jams or racing through e-mails, texting and running to pick up our kids after a tough day at work. Rather, humans seem more built for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra–like outrunning a lion.
This book is a primer about stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases and what does that have to do with our personalities?”
Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, concludes with a hopeful chapter, titled “Managing Stress.” Although he doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that hope cures all disease, Sapolsky highlights the studies that suggest we do have some control over stress-related ailments, based on how we perceive the stress and the kinds of social support we have.
As a busy lawyer, I was immediately attracted to the title Full Catastrophe Living. It literally leapt of the bookshelf and cracked me on the head. Who doesn’t live a life so jammed with stuff to do that it feels like a catastrophe?
Chronic stress saps our energy, undermining our health, and making us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and disease. The heart of the book is based on Kabat-Zinn’s renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University at Massachusetts Medical Center.
The author takes the phrase “full catastrophe living” from book and movie “Zorba the Greek”. If you’ve never seen it, an Englishman Basil – – who is half-Greek – – inherits a run down mine in a small Greek town. To help him restore it, he hires a local character named Zorba to be the foreman of the local laborers. Zorba, full of the zest of a life truly lived, is asked by Basil, “Do you have a family?” Zorba responds “Wife, children, house – – the full catastrophe!!!”
Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.
Author of my favorite book on depression, “Undoing Depression”, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., has written another simply brilliant book on the consequences of “perpetual” stress in our lives – the alarming and escalating rates of clinical anxiety and depression. This was the first book I read that made clear to me the connection between stress, anxiety, and depression. It formed the basis for my blog on the topic How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression. The human nervous system was never meant to handle this many stressors. It’s as if the circuit breakers in our brains are blown by too much stress running through our brain’s circuitry. This book is a perfect fit if you want to learn a lot about the brain and physiology of stress – I found it fascinating. If you’re looking for a quick read and pick-me-up, this isn’t it. Check out his website.
A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook — Bob Stahl
The author writes that the key to maintaining balance is responding to stress not with frustration and self-criticism, but with mindful, nonjudgemental awareness of our bodies and minds.
This book employs some of the same mindfulness strategies discussed in Full Catastrophe Living but does it in the format of a workbook. I find this format very helpful because it’s practical and gives me exercises to do to put into practice mindfulness to reduce my daily stress load.
The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.
Medication, once considered the treatment of choice, is losing favor as more and more sufferers complain of unpleasant side effects and its temporary, quick-fix nature. Now, thanks to a flood of fresh neurobiology research and insights into the anatomy of the anxious brain, effective, practical strategies have emerged allowing us to manage day-to-day anxiety on our own without medication. Addressing physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D., a leading mental health clinician, draws on basic brain science to highlight the top ten anxiety-defeating tips. Everything from breathing techniques to cognitive control and self-talk are included. I really like that the 10 chapters are highly readable and short. Dr. Wehrenberg is also a frequent blogger at the Psychology Today website. Here’s one of her blogs, The One-Two Punch of Negativity and Fear.
This book approaches the problem of anxiety a little differently than most. Instead of trying to help you overcome or reduce feelings of anxiety, it will help you climb inside these feelings, sit in that place, and see what it would be like to have anxiety and still make room in your life to breathe and rest and live, really and truly live, in a way that matters to you. This approach is based upon a research-supported form of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT which starts with the assumption that the normal condition of human existence is suffering and struggle, ACT works by first encouraging individuals to accept their lives as they are in the here and now. This acceptance is an antidote to the problem of avoidance, which ACT views as among the greatest risk factors for unnecessary suffering and poor mental health
The Worry Cure – Robert L. Leahy
For “highly worried people,” or those who suffer from the “what-if disease,” this book presents a systematic, accessible self-help guide to gaining control over debilitating anxiety. Leahy is an expert in changing thought processes, and he walks worriers step-by-step through problems in the way they think, with pointers on how to change these biases. The author then outlines a seven-step worry-reduction plan (remember, I love plans!) beginning with identifying productive and unproductive worry, progressing to improving skills for accepting reality, challenging worried thinking and learning to harness unpleasant emotions such as fear or anger.
Self-Coaching: The Powerful Guide to Beat Anxiety – Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.
This is a good book for those who don’t want to see a therapist or, if they do, need extra doses of encouragement and practice to overcome their stress and anxiety. The author advises readers to identify themselves as specific personality types (e.g., “Worrywarts,” “Hedgehogs,” “Perfectionists”) and then gives specific instructions on how to change the particular thought patterns associated with this type of personality. So many people who struggle with anxiety never got what they needed while growing up – – enough love, encouragement, and affirmation. Lacking these core experiences, we develop can develop particular maladaptive strategies to cope with people and situations that push our buttons. This is the only book that I’ve read that pairs specific coping recommendations with particular personality types.
What books would you recommend? Hit the comment button and submit your favorites.
If you are interested in talking to Dan about CLE eligible trainings he offers law firms, call him at (716) 913-6309 or via our contact form. One-on-one coaching is also available for lawyers who need individualized attention. Go to Dan’s website Yourdepressioncoach.com to download his free book and schedule a consultation.