Burn out – Legal profession impacted?

Jun,13 2019

Burn out – Legal profession impacted?

By Geeta Thakerar


I did not realise just how much debate and controversy had been taking place on defining the term “burnout”. This very recent focus was on whether “burnout” should be categorised as a disease within World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases and Injuries. This was indeed a “hot topic” at the recent WHO Assembly in May this year. 

The WHO Assembly debate largely centred around whether “burnout” was an occupational phenomenon or a medical condition.

After much back and forth finally consensus was secured within the WHO Assembly.  It has been announced that “burnout” is defined as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

There are compelling arguments which support the contention that burnout is a serious problem within the legal industry. High-pressure environments in the in-house legal departments as well as within law firms - in an era of doing more with less - as organisations tighten their belts, coupled with lawyers’ innate characteristics/personalities and the adversarial nature of the legal profession - this is a pressure pot waiting to explode.

The term “burnout” is relatively new, in the scheme of things. In the 1970s, Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, coined the phrase “burnout”. He used it to describe consequences of severe stress. Earlier one of Graham Greene’s 1960s novels had burnout in its title and addresses the topic within the novel.

Job or work related “burnout” is becoming increasingly prevalent. Many professionals, including legal professionals, are physically and emotionally exhausted. “Burnout” often is described as having 3 things - exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of inefficacy. The symptoms of “burnout” include constant anxiety, feeling constantly overwhelmed, changes in personality, irritability, pessimism, obsessive thoughts, negativity, reduced sense of accomplishment and feelings of inadequacy and dread, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, fatigue, disengagement, depression, a sense of helplessness, lost or diminished motivation and heart palpitations.

Some possible root causes inter alia are extremes of activity, dysfunctional work environment, lack of clear job expectations, work/life imbalances, lack of control over job schedules.

Recently Mr Foo Chee Hock, Dean of the Singapore Judicial College reportedly warned lawyers and particularly junior ones to be aware of potential burnout. The guidance provided by the Dean was to regularly take stock of both work and purpose particularly since much will be invested in legal careers and if lawyers are pushing too hard, constantly working 14 to 18 hours a day – the question raised was sustainability and how soon would one lose the edge.

Do not suffer in silence. Reach out and talk to someone about how you feel and seek help and support. SCCA’s Well Being Chapter is here to help and direct you to the right support structures if need be.

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