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Research summary – burnout in lawyers

Note: the summary below is based on Näsström’s two national studies
on Swedish lawyers; 2005 (2318 lawyers), and 2017 (1818 lawyers) with
data and conclusions are mostly taken from the latter.

definition

Christina Maslach1 pioneered burnout as a construct in stress research. Her interest was
initially piqued after hearing lawyer friends talking about the term. In her definition, burnout is a
syndrome of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, depersonalization, and reduced perceived
efficacy.

dimensions

Emotional exhaustion is the first line of response to demands which exceed the individual’s emotional resources. A common reaction to this imbalance is the development of a cynical outlook,
which could be understood as a way to create emotional distance between oneself and the drain-
ing demands of work. This reaction is not to confuse professional space, as the latter is
a conscious and practical approach to a demanding working situation. In contrast, the latter is an unconscious and dysfunctional psychological defense mechanism.

Cynicism is a disconnected attitude towards a profession, colleagues, or clients (ibid.).
Commitment shifts to damaging indifference, and empathy is replaced by a dehumanized view of
the clients and co-workers. Cynicism can be regarded as a sort of counterproductive coping mech-
anism, since it reduces energy and thus impairs professional efficiency (ibid.).

The third dimension of burnout concerns the individual’s perceived efficacy in carrying out professional duties. Perceived usefulness is believed to be reduced in conjunction with the development
of emotional exhaustion and cynicism and can result in lowered professional self-esteem. Low
perceived efficacy has a depressive component which can manifest as mental resignation, lack of
confidence, and social seclusion from co-workers and clients.

Thus, burnout can be understood as a continuum – a gradual process starting with initial engagement-
ment. The latter refers to an energetic condition in which the practitioner strives for optimal job
performance, convinced of their efficiency, while burnout implies a state of exhaustion char-
acterised by a cynical outlook and lack of professional confidence. In other words, burnout is the
opposite of healthy and vigorous job engagement.

predictors of burnout

Seven variables significantly predicted emotional exhaustion. The most important predictors with a
negative relationship to emotional exhaustion, i.e., apparent buffers, were job satisfaction and mind-
fulness2; the most critical positive predictor, i.e., the factor contributing to emotional exhaustion,
was overcommitment. Overcommitment can also be described as a lack of boundaries between
work and leisure, which erodes rest and recovery, and is linked to work-life balance. In law-
yers, overcommitment is typically manifested as excessive checking of work-related email during
non-office, more often than is needed. Frequent and sometimes worrying thoughts
about work during leisure and vacation periods isare also characteristic of overcommitment. Insecure
overachievers, usually young females, are the group that is at the greatest risk.

Cynicism had four significant predictors. Again, job satisfaction and mindfulness were negatively
related to cynicism and were the strongest of the four predictors.

Seven work characteristics predicted professional efficacy. The strongest predictors, posi-
tively related to efficacy were leadership, mindfulness, and job satisfaction.

Sleep problems – also an important indicator and factor in stress and burnout – were predicted by
four variables from which overcommitment (positively related) and mindfulness and job satisfac-
negatively associated with sleep problems, explained the most significant percentage of the variance.

levels of burnout in business law firms

The Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Scale used in these studies categorizes rates
into low, mid, and high levels. The number of responses to specific data was somewhat lowered
and should be used with caution until future studies have replicated them. A large sample of data in the 2005 study showed that lawyers had about 40 percent higher
levels of emotional exhaustion than the staff at universities and IT consultants.

(Table: MBI-GS categorization of associates and partners in law firms with more than 30 lawyers.)

burnout correlated to position in business law firms

For business lawyers working in firms with 25 or more lawyers, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, job
satisfaction, sleep problems, mindfulness, overcommitment, and professional efficacy depend on sig-
significantly on the type of position in the company—owner/partner or associate. Associates in busi-
ness law companies experienced higher emotional exhaustion, cynicism, sleep problems,
and overcommitment. On the other hand, owners/partners are more satisfied with their job, have
better work-life balance, and have a greater capacity for mindfulness and professional efficacy.

burnout and the PAID reality: developments in the past decade

Incorporate mindfulness (i.e., CBMT) the acronym PAID is used to describe the modern working
conditions for knowledge workers:

• Pressured
• Always On
• Information Overload
• Distracted

While the intense nature of business lawyering could be said to have had these characteristics for
decades, it has been compounded by the IT revolution. The significant shift was initiated with the
introduction of smartphones around 2007-2008. To analyze the impact of IT in general and smart-
In particular, an analysis was made of surveys carried out in 2005 and 2017.

Significant increases were found in the following constructs:
• Sleeping problems
• Work-life imbalance
• Cynicism

• Qualitative workload
• Efficiency

Associates

Partners

High emotional exhaustion

30%

16%

High Cynicism

53%

26%

Low Professional Efficacy

19%

18%

This reflects an increase in insomnia, work-life imbalance, cynicism, and qualitative workload and efficiency. While the design of the study does not explore the causality between these shifts
and the introduction of smartphones, these are the type of outcomes one would expect from the
introduction of such information technology.