Many members of the Bar will have suffered from what is described in modern mores as “occupational burnout”. In layman’s terms it is a psychological – or perhaps an emotional – condition, with physical consequences, arising from being – sometimes persistently – overwhelmed by one’s actual, or perceived, work obligations. It is commonly suffered in the professions.
In a recent – 25 January 2023 – article by Josie Cox in the BBC online magazine – “Is burnout finally ‘high-profile’ enough for leaders to act?” – the following extract appears. Hopefully, it will be of use to members of the bar in managing their professional endeavours.
Burnout is broadly defined as physical and emotional exhaustion, coupled with decreased motivation and lowered performance at work. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it “results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll”. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases and defined it as an “occupational phenomenon” (while also maintaining it is not a medical condition).
Burnout has traditionally been associated with executives in industries like law, consulting and finance, where a culture of presenteeism [the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job] has historically prevailed, often leading to extraordinarily long hours and overwork. However, it’s increasingly affecting different generational cohorts, especially young people, and is manifesting across an array of sectors.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, author and time-management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders describes burnout as generally driven by factors including an excessive workload, a perceived lack of control and the sense that the time and effort put into a job are not commensurate with the rewards offered.
Crucially, burnout is not a gendered condition – it can affect anyone. Indeed, during the pandemic, reports of burnout surged, with one global survey of more than 7,000 employees in late 2020 showing that upwards of 90% reported experiencing some form of burnout. But despite its prevalence and pervasiveness, business leaders, managers and employees have widely failed to address both its causes and consequences in a meaningful way. Worse still, burnout is widely stigmatised.
One study from 2007 showed stigma to be one of the greatest barriers to the treatment of mental health challenges; another, from 2020, noted that perceived stigma may reflect the belief that most people view burnt out individuals as less competent than those who are not burnt out.
Data from the CDC [USA Centre for Disease Control and Prevention] shows women are more likely than men to talk about mental health and seek treatment – exposing them to this competence myth. But even when individuals speak out and are taken seriously, the mechanism and resources to support them often don’t exist.
That lack of institutional support means workers may find themselves at the brink – especially those who are not in a position to walk away from their jobs, or simply approach their superiors for help.
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Association members (including judges) harbouring this, or any other difficulty in the conduct of their practice, are reminded they have access to the Bar Care scheme. The Bar Care Panel offers members three free confidential consultations per year, funded by the Bar Association, with a psychologist or psychiatrist from a specialist panel. Members can be assured of complete confidentiality, with the member able to contact the panel practitioner directly.
The Association’s Wellbeing Conversations provide an intimate and at times confronting insight into the challenges that many within the profession face. By shining a light on wellbeing, the Association hopes to mitigate the stigma surrounding mental health. By providing personal and raw experiences, the Wellbeing Conversations also offer insight into resilience and adaptability.
Please visit the Online Support page of the Association’s website for a range of support services available.