“Burnout is a cunning thief that robs the world of its best and its brightest by feeding on their energy, enthusiasm, and passion, transforming these positive qualities into exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment.” Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.
There is an increased recognition that prolonged and chronic stress leads to burnout. Amongst the legal profession mental health and suicidal thoughts is being talked about more openly which is regularly attributed to work related issues.
The legal community is facing a crisis of mental health and burnout. There has never been more written about the unrelenting pressure, increasing workload, long days, the never-ending new projects/cases and lack of vacation than ever before. Lawyers, wherever they are in the world, hold themselves to high standards and are trained accordingly. Their sense of duty and desire to adhere to high professional standards, ‘do good’, ‘be counted on to deliver’ drives behavior which in turn leaves little time for wellbeing, rest, sleep, family and simply ‘switching off’ from the day job. The ‘always on’ culture is prevalent and fueled by smartphones, an addiction to the rewards of successful results, the ‘dopamine release’ of a bonus or recognition. The loss of control in the daily lives of many professionals and leaders leaves them feeling helpless and exhausted.
I succumbed to this life and was utterly guilty of putting in too many long hours at the expense of family holidays, my children’s school assembly or sport’s days, personal health and for two Christmas’s in row not getting around to buying a single gift for my husband! Why? Well, I guess I had been conditioned to respond to ‘the call’ and rationalized it with various reasons and a sense of professional duty. Deadlines, increased workload, limited resources, negative self talk: “I can’t drop the ball because….: (a) they will think I am rubbish and replace me; (b) we have a mortgage to pay, school fees, family to support, ailing relatives, I can’t afford to lose my job no-one else will hire me; (c) if I don’t respond now the deal will not close on time or we can’t file at court on time…’; (d) I can’t let them down..(e) I can’t lose my seat at the Exec table.” I had spent over 30 years studying, working long hours, paying off the loans to qualify, working to build a worthy reputation and to make everything I had sacrificed and striven for count for something. My fragile self-esteem and sense of duty was bound up in it all.
Then one day the universe sent me a very significant message. The death of my parents within 3 months of each other ‘smacked me out of my addiction to work’. I had found it difficult to create space and time to grieve for their loss. I still had a job to keep, my family needed me, the same year my husband was made redundant and I was carrying a serious ankle injury. I stopped exercising and didn’t go to physio which began to impact my lower back and wellbeing.
By Christmas, I was burnt out. I had left myself little or no time or space to grieve. I could not process the loss of my mother whose untimely death happened under the most difficult of circumstances. The impact of exhaustion, fatigue, sleep deprivation led me to lose my sense of self. I no longer understood what I was on this planet to do.
I didn’t reach out to friends. I didn’t explain what was happening to anyone. During the Christmas vacation, I would wake up earlier than the rest of the family and read John O’Donohue (Irish poet & philosopher) or listen to Nic Askew’s soul biographies and cry. One short film lifted me, Kathryn Temple “On Knowing Happiness” summed it up. “Look for the joy in life”. To paraphrase Kathryn, she recalled reading somewhere that the ancient Egyptians believe that on the gateway to heaven, you are asked 2 questions: the first, have you found the joy in your life? And the second, has your life brought joy to others?
Many of my questions about core purpose and life started to fall into place. I was speaking at international women’s day when a conversation with a young distressed lawyer led her to comment that after hearing my story, I had given her ‘hope’. It struck me that if I had made a difference to one person’s life in their hour of darkness then that was a life worth living.
Shortly thereafter, I set up a foundation in my mother’s memory to honour her legacy. My parents always believed that ‘education was your passport to the world’. I founded an event called Courageous Leaders – to empower women to find the courageous leader in themselves. With the help of friends, former work colleagues, family and my network we successfully ran the event in London raising £112,000 for an education project in Zimbabwe to help young underprivileged girls back into full time education run by Plan International UK charity. It made my heart sing. We intend to run it again in 2020.
I found a renewed passion and energy. Although I continue to work hard, I try to find space to look for the joy in life, to spend time with my children, husband, friends, to sleep, to exercise, and to make a difference to lives of others. For me, this is a life worth living and a way to overcome burnout.
I found a different reward, a badge honour that is more meaningful, and a purpose that nourishes my soul. I also work for a purposeful company, where culture and people matter, I don’t feel the need to prove I am smart and capable. I just want to turn and be the best version of myself.