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Addressing the risk of burnout in legal teams

Out-Law Guide | 24 Mar 2022 | 3:44 pm | 3 min. read

Getting a fresh perspective on processes and service delivery can help busy in-house legal teams make changes that address the risk of burnout.

Legal teams are under increased pressure, with burgeoning workloads and expectations on them. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many professionals’ perspectives on their workplace and a new kind of burnout has emerged. This requires a renewed focus on wellbeing.

The risk of burnout

Post-pandemic we are seeing a new kind of burnout. Dealing with Covid-19 required a rapid response and quick thinking from businesses and whilst this created anxiety and stress, there was also an energy and motivation to adapt and evolve to the changing global picture.

Two years on and that motivation and engagement has largely started to drain away and although most are looking to resume some kind of ‘new normal’, the relentless news cycle of hope followed by fear and the stress this has created has left behind an exhaustion. In-house legal teams experienced a particularly tough time when the pandemic hit as boundaries blurred, furlough hit, supply chains became scrambled and GCs were asked to help make sense of it all. This was on top of the historic shrinking of legal budgets and team sizes. Burnout in the legal profession in 2022 is an inevitability.

A report from Gallup recognised a trend in 2020 called the wellbeing-engagement paradox which captured how people behaved and felt at work during the first year of the pandemic. It recognised that there is normally a link between employee engagement and wellbeing and that they influence each other. However, employee engagement and wellbeing became disconnected in 2020 – stress grew and wellbeing decreased but engagement remained strong.

Geraldine Kelm

Geraldine Kelm

Partner, Head of Account Management, Vario Flexible Services

Ultimately, the causes of burnout – typically, long hours, a heavy workload and a lack of autonomy – need to be addressed

The report said: “At a time when layoffs and furloughs abounded, employees were thankful to have jobs, experienced the benefits of increased flexibility and autonomy resulting from remote work, benefitted from strong leadership efforts to engage them, and rallied with co-workers to keep everything afloat. In short, employees were inspired by and united under a shared sense of purpose.”

However, that kind of disconnect can’t last and this is why we’re seeing higher cases of burnout now than ever before. According to analysis of employee reviews by Glassdoor, mentions of burnout increased 128% since May 2021.

Burnout is an underlying factor in the so-called ‘great resignation’, where professionals are leaving their roles for a variety of reasons: exhaustion and the need to step-back from stress, the desire to spend time with family, devote to passion projects or even to retire earlier than planned. For some, the pandemic also clarified the importance of strong values, and many people are looking for new roles which give them a greater sense of purpose.

A wellbeing issue

Burnout can present itself in a variety of different ways. In 2019, the WHO redefined stress syndrome as burnout and a syndrome “conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Mental Health UK lists the common signs of burnout as including: feeling tired or drained most of the time, feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated, having a cynical/negative outlook, procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed. Importantly, burnout doesn’t go away on its own but slowly worsens if the root causes of the stress and exhaustion aren’t identified and dealt with.

For busy in-house legal teams, wellbeing should be a priority for 2022, especially as pressures and heavy workloads continue, with gusto, this year.

Addressing the risk of burnout

The first and most important step is recognising what burnout is, what it looks like and if your team could be suffering. This is crucial, especially when Mental Health UK’s stats suggest that only 23% of people knew what plans their employers had in place to deal with burnout.

Creating an open culture and putting in place clear strategies to deal with burnout and to support employees’ wellbeing is obviously very important and shouldn’t be neglected but ultimately, the causes of burnout – typically, long hours, a heavy workload and a lack of autonomy – need to be addressed. Otherwise, teams will be caught in Groundhog Day.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the journalist and workplace expert Jennifer Moss highlighted that burnout isn’t about the people, but about the workplace: “Burnout is preventable. It requires good organisational hygiene, better data, asking more timely and relevant questions, smarter budgeting (more micro-budgeting), and ensuring that wellness offerings are included as part of your well-being strategy.”

At Vario we see pressured in-house lawyers every day and a growing number are looking for solutions to the entrenched problems which are causing burnout. Many of these problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but in most cases were issues long before that.

We’ve seen first-hand how increasing efficiencies, embracing technology and taking a fresh approach to processes can really help free-up a busy legal team. This is vital to tackling burnout – adapting the work, not putting a sticking plaster over the people.