Working long hours is crucial for meeting targets, cementing client relationships and impressing your principals – or… is it? In fact, the truth to work life balance is quite the opposite. Long hours can lead to burnout, so if it’s success and longevity you’re after, work smarter, not longer.
Burning the candle at both ends simply doesn’t work. Mental health problems impact many professions and are known to be rife within the legal profession especially. Overworked, overtired lawyers cannot possibly produce the quantity or quality of work required for a sustained period. The negative impact of stress on individuals and law firms is inevitable, and can have dire consequences.
Incidences of depression are four times higher for lawyers than the general population, with research indicating alarming numbers of lawyers contemplating suicide. Anxiety and other illnesses amongst lawyers of all levels are also on the rise. Up to 33 per cent of practising lawyers suffer from one or more disorders, one of which is alcoholism (18 per cent), while 80 per cent of complaints against Australian practitioners feature substance abuse as a significant issue.
Finding a work life balance
The statistics are alarming, but it’s not all bad news. Firms are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of making too many demands of their staff and the increasing importance of work life balance. With the recent introduction of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation’s Psychological Wellbeing Best Practice Guidelines for the Legal Profession, greater emphasis is now being placed on the importance of finding that work life balance.
Anton Block, principal lawyer at Kliger Partners, encourages his staff to use common sense.
“We work hard, but we don’t expect crazy hours,” Block says. “We lead by example by living the work life balance lifestyle, and not exceeding what is sensible.” Block is impressed by staff who show diligence by being on top of the issues they need to be.
“Having to chase work, follow up and fill in gaps is no good. Keeping partners aware of what’s going on and where problems arise are more important than seeing someone at their desk late at night.”
Block also advises that senior lawyers need to be aware of junior staff and their circumstances.
“We have an open-door policy and are available to talk, answer questions and help solve problems. That really makes a difference to how juniors cope.”
Recognising the risks
Many law firms now offer external psychological and other support services to support work life balance, but by recognising the warning signs early on, you can take steps to avoid major burnouts.
Contributing factors to work life un-balance:
The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation identified conflict and lack of autonomy as a cause of increasing depression amongst lawyers. It also pointed to the culture of competitiveness in law firms and disillusionment as a major problem. Be aware of working long hours on a regular basis, taking on increasingly large volumes of work that you can’t complete in your allocated working hours and of being insufficiently rewarded for your efforts.
Lethargy and fatigue, lowered immunity, insomnia and changes in appetite should be cause for concern. Stress can damage confidence levels and lead to withdrawal, work avoidance, negativity and the use of drugs, alcohol or food for comfort. Burnout can manifest as irritability, anxiety and depression. Seek help as soon as you notice any of these symptoms.
To avoid burnout:
- Avoid skipping meals or replacing them with high-energy foods or liquids,
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables,
- Stay hydrated and exercise regularly,
- Try to maintain a routine,
- Manage your time efficiently and take regular breaks throughout the day. Schedule breaks in if you need to, and stick to them!
- Maintain proper boundaries between work and your personal life,
- Remember to make time to catch up with friends and family. Having fun and socialising are essential.
If you still feel overwhelmed, and like it’s all becoming too much, don’t be afraid to talk about how you’re feeling – there are a range of confidential services available that can help you cope better in every day life, or if you think you, or someone you know, may be suffering from deression.
For too many lawyers, long hours, too much work and high stress levels have been the norm, and the cracks are beginning to show. Burnout is too high a price to pay for a career in law. You need to act now to avoid it.