“Healthy boundaries”: the essential formula for tackling stress and burnout

  • Amy Jo Ehman

After more than 30 years of practising law, Malcolm knew he had a problem. He worked too much at the expense of his family, bringing home the animosity and conflict often associated with a successful litigation practice.

All the bravado and invincibility of a young lawyer had given way to the sober second thought of a man who had dedicated his life to his career and found the price was too high.

“Something happened in my life that caused me to pause and reflect,” recalls Malcolm (not his real name), speaking on condition of anonymity. “I realized that, year after year, there had been an erosion of the connection with my wife and my children, and I didn’t want to do that any further.”

In September, Malcolm enrolled in a 12-week workshop for lawyers in the Vancouver area who are burned out and suffering from a lack of balance in their lives. “Some would consider it a sign of weakness,” he says. “Among those who recognize that balance is an important issue, they would probably applaud it.”

The price of inaction is high: lawyers have higher rates of divorce, illness and suicide than other professionals; are twice as likely to succumb to alcohol abuse; are three times more likely to suffer depression and other forms of mental ill health. “Lawyers are burning out. They are getting sick. They are suffering and they are dying,” says John Starzynski, executive director of the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program.

“Young lawyers are saying to us, ‘This isn’t what we signed up for. We didn’t know we had to give our lives away in order to practise law.’”

Battling burnout

Burnout is a symptom, not a syndrome. The root cause is the inability to set clear boundaries with clients, the firm and outside expectations, according to Robert Bircher, program coordinator at the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia.

He developed the 12-week workshop “Creating Balance Through Healthy Boundaries,” which is being offered for the first time this fall, in Vancouver.

Participants learn to set boundaries and establish strategies for saying “no” when those boundaries are crossed. The goal is to make more time for themselves and the things they love.

“Many lawyers are people pleasers. They let their boundaries go and their lives get out of balance,” says Bircher. “Too often, young lawyers are so eager and enthusiastic, they lose their self-care. They drop away from their friendships and physical activities. That’s unhealthy.”

In fact, the toll begins early: law students are more likely to suffer depression than students in other disciplines. “There’s something about law that is depressogenic,” says Bircher. “Law is about conflict and a lot of lawyers don’t deal with that well. If you’re prone to depression, law is going to make it worse.”

Sometimes, it’s difficult not to bring that sense of conflict home.

“It’s hard to turn that switch off,” Malcolm explains. “You have to work hard to lose that conflict mentality, because your family doesn’t want you to be a lawyer when you’re at home.”

Strategies for a balanced life

It takes commitment to maintain work/life balance in a profession that often rewards workaholics. Follow these tips from those who’ve been there:

  • Eat well and stay physically active. Work out at noon, even if your firm frowns on it.
  • Don’t let go of friends and social networks. Have a mentor or confidant you can talk to daily.
  • Work for different law firms until you find one that fits.

“Every law firm has its own culture. Some cultures are psycho-toxic and others aren’t,” says Bircher. “In the first ten years, you need to have moved at least three times, unless you’re really happy.”

  • Don’t use drugs or alcohol in order to burn the midnight oil. It can quickly become addictive.
  • Each week, enter personal pursuits in your calendar before entering work commitments.
  • Do something special for yourself every day.
  • Maintain your personal spirituality.

Shifting boundaries

While many young lawyers suffer the stresses of practising law, they are, in general, more likely than senior lawyers to maintain work/life balance and seek professional advice, according to Starzynski.

He says many firms are also becoming more aware that balance is important to the human health of their business.

Malcolm, the Vancouver lawyer, regrets that he did not learn how to set boundaries and to say “no” earlier in his career.

“I wish this type of program has been available 25 years ago, and that I had been willing to participate in it,” he says. “If not, it would have been my mistake.”