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Use Gratitude to Overcome Lawyer Burnout

The act of recognition creates connection, moments for celebration, and it can build community and foster common values – all ways to combat the isolation and stress leading to burnout.

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I’ve held general counsel roles at technology companies for more than 20 years, and I’m no stranger to being the only female executive. Early in my career, in an effort to claim my “seat at the table,” I emulated my male colleagues’ characteristics. Among all that assertiveness, self-promotion, and tossing out the occasional F-bomb, there was no space for authenticity. Not only did the practice of “putting on” that personality feel unnatural, it was also exhausting – but I thought it was the precursor to success.

When I joined Workhuman more than 12 years ago as the chief legal officer/general counsel, I was a lawyer to my core. I dealt with every issue from a risk-mitigation perspective and couldn’t comprehend how gratitude, appreciation, and peer-to-peer employee recognition flowed together in a business environment. I remember the day I tapped into it – it was near the end of a particularly challenging contract negotiation. After 20 hours on the phone together, we were all starting to lose patience. We got to a final agreement, but there was negativity as we begrudgingly congratulated each other.

One of the client’s HR folks interjected and said once the program implemented, she would send a recognition moment to everyone who helped us get here. A breath of fresh air swept through the rooms on both sides of the phone. There was one chuckle, then another, and people started talking about which words they would use to congratulate one another. The anticipation of recognition, of gratitude for a job well done, changed the way these people interacted. We ended the call on a high note.

I’m not the only person who has experienced a situation like this. Research from the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute and Workhuman shows organizations that score in the top 25% on employee experience – many of which have a culture of gratitude driven by employee recognition – report nearly 3x the return on assets and 2x the return on sales.

The more gratitude in an organization, the better it performs – the data proves it. The conscious act of implementing a program designed to respect our fellow humans through gratitude is simple, yet groundbreaking – and has the potential to help us create not only better workplaces, but a better world.

Gratitude Gives Me the Courage to Be Myself

Embracing a peer-to-peer gratitude practice allows me to see all perspectives being appreciated. Watching this play out every day helps increase my comfort level with taking more risk and being more human.

This has led to some changes in my work behavior:

  • I found the courage to speak in my authentic voice and to move toward a more balanced tone in my interactions. 
  • I became a better listener to my team and colleagues.
  • It became easier to embrace being a woman and an executive. By living within a culture infused with appreciation and gratitude, I’m better able to be empathetic and resilient.

These changes not only ease the mental load that comes with upholding an inauthentic persona, but have helped me broaden my impact in a way that is less fear-driven and more attuned to the human – and business – needs of my peers and organization.

Gratitude Allows Me to Better Support All Voices

Humans need to feel seen, heard, and valued. In addition to pay and benefits, they expect their workplace to provide purpose, connection, and appreciation. When we recognize behaviors that contribute to these values, we reinforce our culture.

When people are brave and share their ideas, questions, and concerns, they should be recognized. When many voices are heard and supported, this becomes the social norm. In efforts related to inclusion, belonging, and diversity, it’s on us to create norms that build cognitive dissonance in areas that might be exclusionary.

How to Use Gratitude to Your Advantage as a Lawyer

The legal profession is prone to burnout. Long hours and high-stress situations are the norm, as is the pressure to be calm and seem invulnerable. There are often not adequate support mechanisms in place – the CLO or general counsel often makes many of the highest-level business-impact decisions., and fiduciary duty and confidentiality compromise our ability to seek our peers’ input.

One of the symptoms (and perhaps causes) of burnout is the sense of exerting effort without being recognized for it. Enter a practice of gratitude delivered through a recognition program, and not only does the general counsel receive recognition for the latest contract closed, but the outside salesperson and other members of the customer team do too. Even when the lawyer may be unable to share all her daily struggles with her peers, the act of recognition creates connection and provides a moment for celebration, and it can build community and foster common values – all ways to combat the isolation and stress leading to burnout.

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