Approximately 76% of professional services firm employees are currently experiencing some form of burnout. This is according to a December 2020 study conducted by behavioral health benefits provider SpringHealth. It is a staggering statistic affecting law firms, accounting firms, investment funds, wealth management firms, and virtually every white-collar industry around the world. Burnout was already pervasive before the pandemic with more than half of the U.S. professional service firm workforce experiencing burnout according to a study by the American Psychological Association. The National Association for Law Placement reports that losing just one associate can cost between $200,000 and $500,000 depending on the size of the law firm. The Covid-19 pandemic only further exacerbated that problem.
The SpringHealth study also found that employees in law firms are more susceptible to professional and personal burnouts (73% and 82%, respectively). Translation: working in a law firm means you have a greater than 80% chance of having a personal health crisis because of your job.
Burnout, or workplace fatigue, as defined by the Mayo Clinic is defined as “a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that could eventually lead to a loss in productivity.” It’s most commonly characterized by the following three warning signs:
- Decreased job performance
- Mood swings at work, and
- Feelings of cynicism.
Burnout is a mental and physical depletion of our minds, bodies, and souls that can result from chronic stress – whether it stems from work or home life. This can be due to workplaces not allowing for flexible work arrangements, an ability to get work done when you need and can get it done, along with other circumstances, causing an inability to recover from a stressful day at the office.
That landscape completely shifted with lockdown and work-from-home changes as the work-life separators vanished into full work-life integration. No longer was it ‘work hours’ and then a commute home to have ‘personal hours’. That last defense for burnout prevention meant the always-on, never-satisfied nature of working in a professional services firm couldn’t stay contained. And when normal outlets for stress relief (gym, gatherings, activities, etc.) were eliminated, more and more people continued to work into the night. All adding to burnout.
This is a significant problem for firms, to say the least, as they risk losing their most valuable assets: their people. Their Human Capital.
Thankfully, there is a real solution more and more firms are exploring: a hybrid workplace. As more businesses return to the office, this is a fresh start for many professional service firms to re-evaluate what’s truly possible with work-from-home and in-person work arrangements. With careful planning, intentional communication, and a willingness to take care of your people, a hybrid workplace could be the saving grace for many employees in your firm.
What Causes Burnout for Professional Service Firms?
If you hear a lawyer say they worked 60 hours this week, it’s could very likely not even be Friday yet. . That’s the pressure and expectations many law professionals face with their everyday work. There are few if any ‘off days’ or free evenings.
A group of first-year investment analysts at Goldman Sachs confided in their management team that their group averaged 95 hours of work per week, resulting in clinically diagnosable levels of anxiety and insomnia. An anonymous associate at the law firm Latham & Watkins told the Financial Times they’ve already been working approximately 150% of their targeted hours in 2021. And that was reported before the halfway point of the year.
From another angle, accounting firms have the constant ebbs-and-flows of client demands, especially as the calendar sneaks closer to filing deadlines. Full-time work for an accounting professional can vary from 50 hours a week to well over 80 hours at a moment’s notice. This isn’t sustainable or wise for professionals who want to enjoy long, fulfilling lives. t’s a perfect storm for a short-lived cortisol-infused scramble for survival.
What are the Signs of Burnout Among Law Professionals, CPAs, and Professional Service Firm Employees?
The signs of burnout for professional service firm employees are usually physical, emotional, and mental:
- Physical: chronic fatigue or oversleeping; lack of energy to complete tasks; low immunity that leads to frequent sicknesses; full-body adrenal fatigue;
- Emotional: feelings of hopelessness, anger, irritability mood swings; anxiety; depression; thoughts of self-harm or suicide; feelings of isolation
- Mental: difficulty concentrating on the task at hand for long periods; brain fog; social withdrawal; presenteeism; uncharacteristic lack of attention to detail
The list goes on and on, but the effect is undeniable and present in firms all across the U.S. Without adjustments and in some cases, wide-scale changes, burnout will devastate the careers and futures of incredibly talented employees in desperate need of support and relief.
Who Is at the Highest Risk of Burnout in Professional Service Firms?
While any professional service employee can become susceptible to burnout, there are some specific types of individuals who are more vulnerable because of their workload or personalities. Those who are at the higher risk of burnout in professional service firms include:
- Someone with a high workload and low control over how they perform their tasks. This is usually an entry-level or junior-level employee, such as a paralegal or legal assistant.
- Someone who feels little sense of accomplishment in their work due to conflicting priorities or constant deadline pressure. Often, a junior associate.
- Someone whose job is focused on one task, such as research or document preparation, without break from the monotony.
One of the few, if any silver linings from the pandemic is how many firms realize they need to invest in their employees’ well being more than just a drink cart, on-site massage therapist, or all-you-can-eat buffets. Professional service firm employees need a real, sustainable solution that can help them better protect against or even recover from burnout. That solution? A hybrid workplace.
How to Help Protect Your Employees from Burnout Using a Hybrid Workplace
Let me be clear: simply working from home will not automatically protect employees from burnout. If that were the case, we would have seen a significant reversal in burnout in professional service firm employees in 2020. The grim reality is we saw a significant increase in burnout.
This is where the beauty of a hybrid workplace informs focused work and collaborative work that keeps employees simultaneously engaged and still free to do their work in whatever way works best for them. A hybrid workplace recognizes not all work is created equal nor does it need to be done in the same space as your fellow associates or colleagues.
There are key steps your firm can take to create a healthy, productive hybrid workplace environment.
- First, you will need to define your employees’ current reality specific to each employee. Even if one employee says they’re feeling great and fully engaged, the next employee you talk with may be hanging on to a thread in every area of their health. Talk with your team. Ask them direct questions: what do they need? What is motivating them today? What ideas do they have to re-invigorate the firm culture? Create a safe, welcoming context where they can share how they’re truly doing. To whatever extent you’re comfortable, give them complete confidence that their responses will have no impact on their employment status.
- Next, create a true back-to-the-office plan that creates space for employees to experience a combination of in-person and work-from-home work. Empower your team leaders to work with their respective teams to find a great solution for each employee. That doesn’t mean each employee has a special set of office vs. homework hours. It means your team leaders help determine what’s the most beneficial and profitable for their teams.
- Update your language of communication: this isn’t just adding more drink carts, casual Fridays, golf outings, and a low-sensory room on-site. It means revisiting how your firm’s leadership talks about work. Example: your staff isn’t coming back to work – no, they’ve been working excruciating hours since the beginning of the pandemic. They’re coming back to the office.
- Determine what boundaries you need to implement for your people when it comes to work. Can someone take the afternoon for a doctor’s appointment without their boss demanding they be right by their phone? Can a junior partner block out time to work from home while preparing for a big case because that’s the type of environment where they do their most focused work?
- Can your firm offer a four-day workweek as an option for staff? Can you involve the facility manager in determining how to make every workspace more accessible to different types of equipment, like standing desks and chairless chairs?
- Are there health professionals, such as dietitians, stress therapists, and wellness coaches, who can supplement your HR staff as on-demand resources? In that same vein, how can your leadership destigmatize those professional support services as not shameful or a sign of weakness, but actually a sign of strength?
- Can you set up a Burnout Prevention program for employees who are struggling to maintain their productivity and health in the face of heavy demands without any downtime or assistance?
The possibilities are endless, but it comes down to intent: how can your firm rethink how your employees do their work? Where they work and when they work may be the least important part of the overall conversation right now. With a hybrid workplace, you give your employees the freedom to focus on doing their best work possible without adding greater stress.
How I Can Help You Prevent Burnout in Your Firm
I’ve spent the past 15 years working with some of the most promising, eager law professionals and accounting professionals across the U.S. I use my previous experience working with the Harvard Business School, some of the top firms on Wall Street, and leading tech firms to bring awareness and true, sustainable change to your firm. With more and more firms going back to the office, the need for burnout recovery and prevention is greater than ever with firm employees.
That’s why I created ReIgnite: a six-session professional development and coaching program designed to help you create a stronger, more profitable, and higher-performing hybrid workforce in 90 days or less. We talk about burnout prevention and recovery and how your firm can turn your back-to-the-office strategy into your greatest competitive advantage for the future.
If you’re ready to give your staff a fresh drive to do great work and make a difference, see what’s possible with Reignite.