By -

Long hours, demanding clients and pressure to perform may make work-life balance seem like an impossible dream. Recovery is the secret sauce that keeps burnout at bay and improves performance.

In the age of hybrid work and amid greater aspiration for work-life balance across many professions, lawyers can appear something of an anomaly. Many practitioners work long hours, log in on weekends and check in with the office during holidays without much complaint, accepting these practices as part of the job.

Most lawyers in NSW work full-time, clocking in for an average of 46 hours a week, according to the Urbis 2022 Annual Profile of Solicitors NSW – far more than the standard 38-hour working week across Australia. It is not uncommon for lawyers to clock up a 50-hour week, and 9 per cent of male practitioners and 5 per cent of women report working six days a week.

That exhaustion and chronic stress owing to overwork can lead to burnout, which heightens the risk of avoidable psychological injury, is now well understood. Yet there’s also acknowledgement that law attracts industrious, hard-working types who are willing to put in the time to get results and climb the ladder.

Are lawyers workaholics who are one intense case away from burning out or dedicated practitioners sustainably ploughing through in a fast-paced profession? As with many high-performance workers, the answer hinges on individual preferences, adequate support from employers and effective recovery.

In the wash-up of the pandemic years, the importance of work-life balance is having a moment in workplaces across the country.

“This is a real point in time where things are shifting and we’re in a good position to make positive change,” says Dr Rachael Potter, a research fellow at the University of South Australia who is part of a large global work addiction project spanning 60 countries. “Burnout rates are going up and up, and more awareness is being raised about mental health at work.”

Wellbeing and its close cousin work-life balance are terms that have rapidly entered the dialogue of legal practice. Law schools across Australia have implemented mental health and wellbeing components into law degrees so young practitioners enter the profession prepared for its rigours. Law firms, government agencies and corporations have recognised the importance of wellbeing and now promote self-care and work-life balance.

“This concept of work-life balance has really come into law firms in the last couple of years,” says Rachel Clements, co-founder and director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health.

“I never saw the discussion happening in law when work-life balance became a big thing 20 years ago. Back then there was still a mentality in law of ‘I work at the expense of my wellbeing. I just switch on my high levels of perseverance and my high levels of adrenaline overdrive, and I just keep pushing through’.”

Marita Pascoe, senior manager of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at Maddocks, agrees there’s been a noticeable shift in attitudes to wellbeing. “Thirty years ago, I worked in environments where people worked around the clock, where there were hotel rooms next to the office to support people who were working on a transaction that was 24/7,” she says.

“There was no real conversation then going on in law firms around work-life balance. Having come back to law in 2015 after quite a long break, I did notice a real shift.”

Clements says the impact of the pandemic and high rates of leader burnout are key drivers of the shift. “We see it in our work where partners or leaders in the legal profession are saying for the first time that they are struggling with wellbeing. We’re now trying to look at what sustainable wellbeing looks like in a high-stress, high-performance profession.”

Pascoe says the blurred lines between work and life, largely due to technology-induced difficulties switching off from work, mean the conversation has evolved to a point where “work-life balance as a term seems a little bit old-fashioned now”. A key focus, she says, is avoiding burnout.

“Do we as a firm talk about work-life balance? We’re probably not using that language. Are discussions about work life going on? Absolutely,” Pascoe says.“They’re happening at an individual level, so between an individual lawyer and their supervising partner or mentor or, in our world, practice team leader, where it might be about the alignment of what they’re doing at work with their other interests.”

Old ways creeping back in

There are, however, concerns that old ways of working are creeping back in. Clements says she’s noticed many people within the profession pausing the wellbeing strategies they’d effectively put in place during the pandemic out of guilt and, somewhat counterintuitively, due to busyness and exhaustion.

“I’ve seen people swing back – they’re no longer looking after themselves,” she says. “A lot of lawyers say to me that they feel guilty about looking after themselves, working remotely and walking across the road for a coffee, or finishing work at a reasonable time then going home and spending time with their family.”

So ingrained are diligence and industriousness that Pascoe says it can be difficult to “stop lawyers working”.

“Lawyers, typically, are highly motivated, want to do a good job for the clients they’re working for and really love the work they’re doing in most cases, so it is difficult sometimes to wind them back,” she says.

Dr Stephen Tang, a psychologist, honorary lecturer at ANU College of Law and former lawyer, says years, or even decades, of working long hours can set habits that are tough to change, especially when they’re implicitly supported by the profession.

“The legal profession has done a pathologically impressive job signalling to future lawyers that long hours and a work-life trade-off are necessary, even desirable,” he says. “It’s part of how the profession selects for people whose personality is geared towards industrious work and achievement, even when this is not in the person’s own interests.

“Lawyers enter the profession with an almost over-preparedness to throw themselves into work as a way of inhabiting a professional identity. Unfortunately, this has created a confirmatory cycle where overwork becomes normal, unchallenged, rationalised and even celebrated.”

Because lawyers tend to learn through imitation and observation, Dr Tang says there is an intergenerational effect within the profession where work habits and attitudes towards work are passed down the ranks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a glimpse of other ways of integrating work and life with a balance, but I fear that we’ve just reverted to these deep-seated ways of being,” he says.

Researchers are working on developing a widely recognised definition of work addiction as a type of behavioural addiction. The criteria may include constantly thinking about work, spending more time on work than initially intended and feeling compelled to do more and more, and working in order to reduce feelings of guilt and anxiety.

“The main sign is that work is a compulsive behaviour,” Dr Potter says. “You’re constantly thinking about work or you’re planning your life around work. It’s a negative cycle you can get stuck in where you feel guilty, anxious or depressed if you can’t work, and you forget about your personal life.”

Organisational psychologist Rachel Setti, director of Thriving Edge Coaching and Consulting, says being highly motivated to work and unable to switch off are key components of work addiction.

“You could have two lawyers where one works 20 hours a week and one works 60 hours a week. The one who works 60 hours a week – when they’re off work, they’re off work. They turn their computer off and they don’t think about it. But the one who works part time, say 20 hours a week, never switches off mentally,” she says. “That latter example would be more concerning than the former because it’s about lack of detachment from work.”

Dr Potter says work addiction is on the rise and that professions like law that have high job demands and long work hours are at higher risk. Worryingly, work addiction is often a precursor to burnout. “You can’t exist in a state of constant stress and do well,” she says.

Clements says personality characteristics often associated with lawyers, including perfectionism, high achievement drive, obsessionality, high intellect, slight pessimism and sensitivity to be able to build rapport with clients, are linked with work addiction.

“With the legal profession it is a fine line between being at peak performance and meeting KPIs and client expectations and going over into that ‘stress is harmful’ zone or that workaholic zone,” she says.

When excessive work is a personal habit rather than something required by an employer it can be a psychological defence against anxiety, Dr Tang says.

“It is an anxiety about who one is without the veneer of compulsive activity and action – an anxiety caused by something within that’s running on empty or which hasn’t fully come to life,” he says.

“Work can also mask a sense of shame or defectiveness which has been lurking around for a long time, and which is often expressed at a surface level in the impostor syndrome that many lawyers experience.”

Factoring in recovery

For most practitioners, fostering work-life balance and avoiding work addiction and burnout begins at a firm level. One of the most effective approaches is building recovery into standard ways of working.

“The organisational culture has a huge influence on the individual,” Setti says. “From an evolutionary perspective, we’re designed to have periods of high-level intense work – that is, fight or flight. It helps us focus, gets things done, hit our deadlines – as long as there’s some recovery time afterwards.

“When it becomes an issue is when there’s no recovery. You go from one very intense period straight into the next intense period and it just feels unrelenting.”

Dr Potter says work should be designed in a way that’s “manageable” and includes frequent opportunities for recovery. “It’s the expectations and norms that exist in the workplace or profession that are really important to get right,” she says.

At Maddocks, Pascoe says each team has a practice team leader that manages workloads and identifies if anyone is over (or under) capacity.

“They monitor weekly capacity reports and production reports that our finance team provide. If at the beginning of the week someone is reporting that they are overloaded, and you’ve got somebody at a very similar level reporting that they’ve got capacity, it allows you to manage that proactively to ensure you’re not burning out one person in the team,” she says.

The firm’s leaders also role model behaviour that promotes work-life balance. “We encourage partners who are leaving for something, whether it’s exercise, book club or to attend something with their children, to leave loudly so we’re celebrating that people are committing to things other than work,” Pascoe says.

The core principles of recovery can also carry over to individual practitioners.

“It’s important to disentangle – to the extent possible – your own preferences from the expectations and pressures that are placed on you by your employer, peers and through your own training and experiences,” Dr Tang says.

Clements suggests lawyers adopt the mindset of an elite athlete who is “pristine” about their recovery. “This allows them to achieve peak performance every day,” she says.

Leaving work on time, picking up the kids and having dinner with the family, then doing some work in the evening, for example, can constitute recovery. “If your phone is in a different room during dinner and you’re not on emails, you can get some benefits from recovery,” Clements says.

Setti says scheduling in holidays twice a year often isn’t enough to recharge personal batteries. “Research shows short spurts of time off are more effective for recovery than longer breaks. Using your weekends to focus on stuff other than work is also helpful.”

Recovery may not be perfect, it may not happen every day, but what’s crucial is understanding how taking a break from work, rather than doggedly pushing though, can promote work-life balance, keep burnout at bay and improve performance.

“The important conversation for lawyers is to realise that recovery is essential to being in peak performance – and how you’ve maybe been working historically is trying to be in peak performance but eroding your recovery,” Clements says.