From Zen to Chaos and the Long Road Back

People often talk about the intrusion of technology on our lives, particularly in the context of being at work 24/7 as long as you carry a smartphone. For a long time, I took pride in having the discipline to leave work at the office and enjoy my family time. I checked my phone in the evenings, but unless an email was a ‘true” emergency, I didn’t respond to it or think about it until the next morning when I went to the office. I told younger lawyers to train their clients and colleagues not to expect immediate responses from them and not to expect them to be available all the time. I redefined the word “emergency” and decided that an emergency was actually a very rare occurrence. I once took a week-long vacation with my family and returned to the office with 97 unopened, unread messages. I was looking at the emails a few times a day while away, but unless there was something about the subject line that led me to think it was truly an emergency, I left it alone.

Fast forward 5 years. I’m involved in a high pressure, complicated case that is moving at a lighting pace. I’m carrying my phone around constantly, reading emails the second they arrive and sending out documents at 10pm. On a business trip, I add an extra day so I can spend time with a friend I rarely get to see, and end up blowing her off to spend the time working in my hotel room. My husband tells me to take a day off and relax and I tell him I don’t have time. I yell at other lawyers. I feel my blood pressure rising. I lay awake at night worrying about work. What has happened to me?

I let other people’s crises become my own and I started to burn out, that’s what happened. So what do I do about it?

The first thing I do is admit it out loud by writing it in a blog.

Then I set out creating a plan to change. This starts with recognizing what got me here.

  • I have long been a believer in the saying: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I allowed myself to take on those emergencies and I need to stop. Thinking I can step in and solve everyone’s problems is not as altruistic as I’d like to think; it’s actually rather narcissistic.
  • I’ve always had a compulsive need to be right, but I let that trait take over. I need to release my need to be right and concentrate on what it important.
  • I stopped looking at things holistically and focussed on the effect on me. This led to a tendency to blame everyone around me when things go wrong. How dare they cause me further problems? It occurred to me suddenly that perhaps I was the one actually creating the drama. Let’s face it, if you find yourself caught up in crises more often than other people seem to be, you have to ask yourself whether it’s you that is the common denominator

At the risk of sounding overly clichéd, I need to learn to live by the opening lines of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr (incidentally, “God” can be removed from this and replaced with the deity of your choosing, or with yourself, if you don’t believe in a deity).

When things get hectic and I feel the pressure rising, I know I need to step back. I need to remember that this moment, like all moments, will pass. If I focus on the things I can control about the situation and create a plan to get it under control, that, in and of itself, will calm me considerably. I then need to take the things I can’t control and toss them aside. They aren’t worth the precious and limited space in my head and my heart.

That is the plan to deal with the acute moments of panic, but the long term solution requires more consideration. After thought and research, I have come up with the following goals for myself:

  • Talk less and listen more. Miscommunication leads to misunderstandings and needless drama;
  • Think back about the way in which I’ve handled crises over the past year and think about how it could have been handled differently. With the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of time,I want to learn from those experiences;
  • Learn to own my problems and mistakes and not try to blame them on others. It leads to a pattern of never ending negativity.

If I step back even further, I can see that I was heading for burnout. Those who know me may think that is a delusional statement and say I was fully there. In any event, I’ve done some research on how to avoid burnout. No one needs this lesson more than lawyers.

Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger, a psychologist, was the first to coin the term “burnout” in the 1970’s. He defined burnout as “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” He said victims of burnout are often “dynamic, charismatic, goal-oriented people.” Burnout “usually has its roots in the area of your life that seems to hold the most promise.” For lawyers, that area is usually work. Burnout was originally thought to be most common among the “helping professions”, and it is now recognized that burnout is most prevalent in high-stress work environments and emotional job demands. Workers in jobs in which one is consistently making choices for the benefit of others are at the highest risk, as they tend to make those choices at the expense of their own needs.

Preventing and reversing burnout requires effort and mindfulness. First though, you need to recognize it. Most lawyers will recognize an alarming number of these symptoms in themselves:

  • Having a negative and critical attitude at work.
  • Dreading going into work, and wanting to leave once you’re there.
  • Having low energy, and little interest at work.
  • Having trouble sleeping.
  • Being absent from work a lot.
  • Having feelings of emptiness.
  • Experiencing physical complaints such as headaches, illness, or backache.
  • Being irritated easily by team members or clients.
  • Having thoughts that your work doesn’t have meaning or make a difference.
  • Pulling away emotionally from your colleagues or clients.
  • Feeling that your work and contribution goes unrecognized.
  • Blaming others for your mistakes.
  • Thinking of quitting work, or changing roles.

Once you recognize burnout, or even some warning signs of burnout, it’s time to make changes. The opposite of burnout is engagement. Remember how good it felt to be engaged in your work? To enjoy challenging yourself and feeling the sense of accomplishment and self-worth when you met the challenge? That’s what you need to get back.

My own research revealed the following tips, in no particular order:

  • Start the day with a relaxing ritual.
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits.
  • Set boundaries and learn how to say no.
  • Take a daily break from technology.
  • Nourish your creative side. Find a way to engage your brain in a non-work related way.
  • Learn how to manage stress rather than accepting that it is just a way of life.

I expect it may take me longer to get back to my balanced lifestyle than it took me to lose it. But it will be worth the effort and I believe it will allow me to remember what I loved about practicing law.

By Cheryl A. Canning
Partner, Burchells LLP
Halifax, NS
On behalf of CBA Wellness

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