Burnout is a serious problem in various industries, including the legal field. Burnout is often the result of many factors. Workloads are too heavy. You don’t have the tools you need, and there can be ambiguity around expectations and requirements. Paralegal burnout may be something you’re dealing with right now. So, how can you avoid it, address it, and move on from it?
Burnout describes chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. It’s more than typical work stress. In fact, the World Health Association says, “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context.”
Burnout is a complex feeling and situation for each individual. In the modern world, you have many things competing for your time and attention, both at work and at home. Feeling like you’re pulled in many directions and overwhelmed can start a burnout cycle.
As noted, it’s not like traditional work stress, which may ebb and flow depending on what’s on your plate. Burnout is all-consuming and impacts you every day. Unfortunately, the legal field has high levels of this.
How prevalent is burnout in the legal field? Surprisingly, there is little research on the topic. What is available includes a few studies worth looking up.
A study of Wisconsin public defenders and their support staff revealed that 45.7 percent of participants met the criteria of burnout. Because of the seriousness and trauma associated with cases, these legal professionals had burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
While the sensitivity of the cases triggered this, any paralegal can identify with working on cases of a serious nature. On top of handling such cases, these people still had to deal with the aspects of investigating and trying them.
Another study comes from a Journal of Occupational Health report. It concluded that high occupational stress was associated with work-related burnout among attorneys. The authors identify occupational stress as “harmful physical and emotional responses incurred in the work environment.”
The legal profession is stressful. Dealing with clients is a big part of this because seeking legal help often correlates to trauma or devastating events. Managing the emotions and expectations of those you represent means it’s very easy to “take it home with you.”
With little to quantify the state of burnout for paralegals and others in the legal field, expert Paula Davis conducted her own research, which she presented in a Forbes article.
Her key findings include:
The average burnout rate for certain teams is 28 percent.
Workload is the highest driver of burnout. Another driver is a lack of recognition.
Burnout and engagement can coexist, meaning you can love your job and what you do but still feel overwhelmed.
Those revelations are really impactful. Workload and burnout are often linked. Lack of recognition, however, is a surprising finding. It could mean that when people don’t feel valued, they can quickly sink into feeling burned out.
From those learnings and other expertise, the root causes of burnout in paralegals are easier to define.
Many factors can cause paralegal burnout. The most common are:
Lack of control over processes and workflows—when you don’t have autonomy or say in how you do your work, it can be very isolating
Dysfunctional workspaces where bullying, gossip, inequity, and other negative behaviors are part of the culture
Deadlines that are firm and often hard to meet because you don’t have the tools or support you need
Not receiving recognition for good work but constantly receiving criticism
Seldom or nonexistent supervisor and/or peer support
Poor communication regarding expectations, procedures, or responsibilities
Working in a high-pressure environment, which the legal field innately is
Striving for perfection, which isn’t attainable, causing you not to recognize your achievements
Do any of these feelings sound familiar to you? It’s natural to have them, and just because you do doesn’t mean you have paralegal burnout. When stress blossoms into occupational burnout, these feelings become inescapable. The propensity of burnout is real, but there are healthy ways to address it and recover from burnout.
While you can’t instantly fix all the causes of burnout, you can address them in ways that give you a better balance.
Here are some key things to try and consider.
Take breaks. You need to walk away from your screen for at least 15 minutes every few hours. That applies whether you are working in the office or at home. Give yourself some time to recharge before you dive into a new task.
Use your vacation time and disconnect. Failure to use time off is actually a big problem in the U.S. You earned it, so take it. When you do, leave the work at the office.
Set clear boundaries in your work life. For example, you may choose to not answer calls or emails after a certain time. Unless something is extremely urgent, it can likely wait. Also, if you can’t get to it, don’t feel bad about it. You’re one person—not an army.
Eat, sleep, and exercise. We need food for energy, sleep to refresh, and exercise to keep our bodies and minds nimble. You’ll feel better when you prioritize these things.
Increase communication with attorneys and others, so there’s no uncertainty. That can include creating instant chat channels for specific tasks or having regular check-in meetings.
Recommend ways to improve processes to be less taxing and more consistent. Introduce technology tools that reduce manual work that takes so much time. If you can automate it or simplify it, do it. For example, you can use online paralegal tools that support legal research, depositions, eDiscovery, and process serving. Proof is a great example of a technology platform that takes a once time-intensive, haphazard process and transforms it into one that’s easier, faster, and trackable.
Ask questions about changes. If your firm or organization announces new policies, procedures, or operational adjustments, it’s OK to inquire why and what the impact will be.
Talk with a therapist or support group. You can seek individual counseling or join a paralegal group where those around you understand your worries and stresses.
Spend time on yourself. Self-care matters. It may include making time for your hobby, relaxing, or investing in professional development.
By understanding why you’re feeling burned out and taking the time to address what’s within your control, you can lead a more balanced life.
Finding tools, tips, and techniques to destress are critical for paralegals. So, don’t be hesitant to stand up for yourself so you can enjoy your job and your life outside of it. Recognizing when you are teetering on burnout is essential to weathering your way through it. Don’t ever think you should carry on because that can intensify the symptoms. By implementing some of the tips into your work and private world, you can find support in both areas of your life. Want more helpful tips for paralegals? Be sure to subscribe to the Proof blog.