With the start of the new year and the close of the holiday season, many of us will return to our desks after a few days away from the (physical or virtual) office. There will be emails to filter, voicemails to return, and snail-mail to sort. There may be deadlines to calendar, meetings to schedule, and files to organize. With so much ‘catching up’ to do, you may feel an immediate sense of overwhelm, anxiety, or extreme fatigue. You may even be scratching your head, wondering how it’s possible that you returned to work even more tired than before you left.

Well, here is some validation: feelings of burnout—defined by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance or negative feelings about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy—are very real. In fact, citing to preliminary findings from the Legal Aid Association of California: California Legal Aid Recruitment and Retention Study (2019), the State Bar of California noted that “Four in ten attorneys report burnout as a primary motivator for their decision to leave their legal aid organization.” (The State Bar of California, 2019 California Justice Gap Study Executive Report, p. 18.) This ranks burnout among the top reasons for legal aid turnover, right alongside low salaries and limited opportunities for career advancement.

So how can legal attorney aid attorneys prioritize themselves to combat burnout? Here are a few helpful tips and reminders to get you through the post-holiday season:

Eat, sleep, and exercise. We’ve all been told that getting good nutrition, sleeping soundly for 8 hours a night, and exercising 30 minutes per day form the foundation of good health and solid work performance. But sometimes, the closest we get to that perfect foundation is a cup of caffeine, a power nap in between brief drafting, and a dash to the filing window at 3:59pm. Instead of aiming for perfection, you might try to focus on improvement in one or some of these areas. It’s worth remembering that no case, client, or assignment is ever worth sacrificing your mental or physical health. And if you need data to support this, check out the 2016 American Bar Association/Hazelden Betty Ford Study on lawyer well-being.

Respect your downtime. We know this one too. When you’re not working, really stop working. This means putting down your email, turning off those anxiety-provoking push notifications on your phone, and letting any unknown or work-related calls go straight to voicemail. Yes, this can be hard; it’s so easy to keep answering emails at 10pm when you should be curled up with a good book or binge-watching that show your socially-distanced friends keep talking about. But in today’s remote-work culture, we have to make a persistent, conscious effort to separate our work-lives from our home-lives; otherwise, the work day never really ends, and there’s no real time to recover and recharge. So, go ahead and give yourself permission to unplug when you’re supposed to be logged-off, and allow yourself to be present in other areas of your life.

Rediscover the things you enjoy. This is an easy one. Remember all of those incredible things you loved before practicing law or even before law school? Dust off your yoga mat, test out that new recipe, tape your tennis racket, or bring out the scrapbooking paper. And if life before law seems like a blur (you’re not alone!), look into these favorites from our CEB staff:

  • Bird watching
  • Gardening
  • Baking (sourdough, specifically)
  • Sewing
  • Painting

Recognize secondary stress/vicarious trauma/compassion fatigue. Most legal aid attorneys can vividly remember a time when their work (i.e., sorting through their clients’ traumatic experiences) brought about feelings of stress, sadness, anger, or overwhelm within themselves. And while our job as lawyers is focused on resolving specific issues under the letter of the law, it’s very human of us to feel compassion and empathy for our clients and the obstacles they’re facing. The point at which these feelings become problematic is when they start to bleed into our everyday lives, causing a shift in our daily thoughts and behaviors. If, at any point in time, you start to notice symptoms of secondary stress, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue in the course of your work (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, emotionally detached, or exhausted, having intrusive thoughts or dreams, feeling demoralized or experiencing heightened levels of cynicism, among others), please don’t hesitate to ask for help and seek treatment.

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