Anti-burnout #2: Avoiding Covid Burnout
Feeling overloaded, out of control, or unrewarded? Or a bit out of touch with colleagues, sensing the unfairness of your situation, or being asked to do things that don't feel quite right?
Welcome to Summer 2020 - worldwide lockdowns.
None of us have been exempt from coronavirus and its effects. Being ill, losing loved ones, experiencing the huge demands of lockdown and its consequences, both in personal and professional lives. Things haven't been easy.
And lawyers haven't been immune.
And neither has this one, so I do have some insider knowledge. I’ll spare you some of my details, but they included a cough, loss of smell, conjunctivitis, high temperature, ear and sinus infection, partial hearing loss, and ongoing intermittent fatigue. And some you really don’t want to know about. And I lost a good friend who died well before his time thanks to the virus.
The demands of professional life, which can be extreme at the best of times, have simply multiplied for most of us over the last few months. And the risks of burnout have multiplied too.
Is this just something we have to live with or can we take steps to make the pressures more manageable, clarify things and take better control?
Plot spoiler: the answer is ‘Yes’ to all the above.
Let’s wind back a decade or so to 2008.
Recognising that a worker’s experience of strain played a role in the relationship between external job demands (stressors) and work-related outcomes (such as absenteeism or illness), burnout researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter in the United States and Canada published a paper in 2008 proposing a ‘Burnout - Engagement’ model.
Drawing on three decades of research, they conceptualised people's psychological relationships to their jobs as a continuum between a negative experience of burnout and a positive experience of engagement.
They defined ‘engagement’ as “an energetic state of involvement with personally fulfilling activities that enhance one's sense of professional efficacy”.
Last year the World Health Organisation adopted Maslach’s formulation of ‘burnout’ as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and characterised by three dimensions:
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
Reduced personal efficacy”.
Maslach and Leiter described the three interrelated dimensions of the continuum (exhaustion/energy, cynicism/involvement, and inefficacy/efficacy) as operating within six key domains of the workplace environment (workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values):
Let’s look at these six areas of worklife or ‘organisational risk factors’.
Sometimes the job demands exceed human limits and resources to fulfil the requirements.
A sense of personal control in the workplace is vital.
Insufficient reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout.
The overall quality of social interaction at work is key. This includes issues of conflict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team.
It’s important that decisions affecting the workforce are perceived as being fair and equitable.
The motivations that originally attracted people to their jobs need to be nurtured. They are the motivating connection between the worker and the workplace.
We don’t need to be the sharpest analytical lawyer in the world to see how these six areas will be affected profoundly by the addition of the experience and pressures of Covid.
‘Looking back, it was my year from hell’. Peter (a senior partner in a large law firm) was reflecting on a period of about nine months when everything seemed to go wrong. He had unexpectedly lost a key member of his department. He was unable to recruit a replacement and his workload virtually doubled for several months. His wife had been unwell and his father had died around the same time. He was able to hold things together for a while, but his sense of connection with his colleagues and clients seemed to evaporate and the increase in work and additional responsibility gradually overloaded him. He was ashamed that he occasionally had thoughts about ending it all. He consulted his doctor who diagnosed clinical depression, prescribed medication and referred him for therapy.
Thinking back recently on his burnout experience, Peter acknowledged that things would have gone downhill far more rapidly in lockdown with the sudden unplanned increase in responsibility, the need to reorganise staff, workload, supervision, working practices, and the unfamiliar disconnection in communicating remotely with partners, staff, clients and courts. And reflecting on things now, as lockdown begins to ease in his area, he began to feel exhausted at the thought of working practices having to be re-adapted and yet more uncertainty.
So, how can I get a bit more clarity on whether I or my staff are at risk of burnout?
Maybe try this simple exercise?
• Scroll back up and note the six burnout areas.
• Which one most closely corresponds with your current experience?
• (There may be a couple near the top of the list. Pick the one that keeps you awake at night.)
• Then look at one of your hands. (It doesn't matter which - either will do).
• Imagine the palm of your hand represents the top-most stressful factor. And the other five are represented by your fingers and thumb.
• How does the most stressful area relate to the others?
• How do the others affect each other?
Let’s think about Peter’s experience:
His top area was workload, followed closely by a sense of losing control. Followed by a sense of detachment from his work and family communities. He was not overly concerned by the other three factors, but aspects of them were there in the background. By separating out the main areas of stress he could begin to get a more objective view of his confused and enmeshed pressures.
And if this works for you, it may also help you to imagine what may be going on for your staff or supervisees or colleagues or clients or opponents.
Maybe start by talking things through with those you supervise using the hand exercise. Where are they experiencing most pressure? And how can you help them?
This is a time of unprecedented pressure for pretty much everyone, including lawyers, wherever or whatever we may practice. Our exposure to factors leading to burnout have increased massively since this Spring.
But there are steps we can take to mitigate the risks.
(I have written a more detailed overview of burnout in the legal profession elsewhere).