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10 leading causes of paralegal burnout

Is your overflowing inbox and your desk covered with stacks of work the cause of your paralegal burnout?

Desk and paralegal buried in paper

Paralegals working in the high-pressure field of law need to understand the causes of  burnout to reduce your odds of crashing and burning (or just withering away). 

This past year has added a new complication to an already stressful environment. A pandemic, with its shelter-at-home orders and virtual schooling for all grade levels, has not reduced any paralegal’s workloads.  

Burnout for a hard-working paralegal seems inevitable. Let’s discuss what are the leading causes so that you will be forewarned and can protect yourself!

Paralegal burnout doesn’t have to be Inevitable. 

Knowledge is power – so let’s learn how to guard against burnout!

What Is Paralegal Burnout?

Christina Maslach, a UC Berkeley psychology professor emerita who created the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most widely used instrument for measuring burnout, and who has championed the problem of burnout over more than two decades, defines burnout as a prolonged response to chronic physical, emotional and interpersonal stressors at work, leading to exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. 

Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Based on Dr. Maslach’s work, the World Health Organization recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon. 

While depression and burnout share many features, burnout improves when you are not under the conditions which caused the burnout (whether that means changing jobs or enjoying a long cruise during which you cannot be reached). Unfortunately, the change of conditions alone rarely eliminates depression. If you feel that you may be dealing with depression, not just burnout, please talk to your doctor so that your doctor can help you.

Paralegal Burnout

What Causes Paralegal Burnout?

Low Battery Paralegal Burnout

Long hours alone do not cause the cynicism towards your work, relentless exhaustion, and reduced professional ability that are the hallmarks of burnout. In a typical year, the fast-paced, high-pressure, and demanding nature of working in the legal field could cause burnout for a diligent paralegal.  

This was not a typical year. 

A global pandemic, which for the past year has forced most families to work and attend school from home while simultaneously removing most support, caused the majority of people’s well-being to decline

Let’s uncover the leading causes of paralegal burnout

10 Leading Causes of Paralegal Burnout

Lack of control

Stories abound of attorneys whose behavior is out of control (throwing paper, or worse, at staff when not satisfied with the work produced, screaming at staff when a request is not met, blaming staff for self-inflicted failures). 

That is not the lack of control being discussed here. While attorney misbehavior is stressful (and if a common occurrence, a high sign to find a new paralegal position), having a lack of personal control and autonomy over your job can lead to burnout. 

As paralegals are in a support role, feeling in control of your daily workflow and work priorities can be difficult to achieve. Paralegals deal with constantly shifting priorities. A phone call or email can alter the previously planned workday. Such shifting urgencies are not rare and can make you feel as if you need to put on your seatbelt and prepare for the daily rollercoaster of demands.

 

Yelling Boss leads to Paralegal Burnout

Since March of 2020, with a threatening invisible virus forcing most legal staff to work from home and produce consistent, quality work-product despite the added challenge of your working spouse and virtual schooled children being under the same roof, the feeling of lack of control grew exponentially for most paralegals.

Did you feel less in control than usual this past year?

Middle school bully

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics

Who has not encountered a bully on the playground? Unfortunately, they also exist in the workplace. 

The dysfunctions that caused you misery while in school: favoritism, gossip, inequity, and jealousy can exist in your firm and department. Sprinkle a middle school type clique with a tyrannical boss and you could find yourself in a toxic work environment.

Think that your dysfunctional workplace won’t happen when you work remotely? 

Think again. 

Working remotely does not safeguard you completely from the poor treatment of a toxic boss, office gossip, or being talked over (or ignored) during online meetings.

Do you feel as though you are dealing with a toxic workplace?

Relentless deadlines

Another challenge for legal staff is the reality of the responsibility to meet looming deadlines but not having the authority to ensure that the required actions of others happen at all or in a timely manner. 

While the courts do arm attorneys and their staff with tools such as sanctions and fines as repercussions for ignoring a subpoena, there are not many tools to coerce an attorney to review a draft and return it in a timely manner. The hard deadline exists regardless of the responsiveness needed to meet it.

As most have experienced, technology seems to fail at the worst time. A pending, tight deadline and equipment challenges can make the hardiest of souls crumble. Working from home can compound issues with technology problems (although everything from copiers and printers to internet connectivity have been known to break in the workplace also).

 

Looming Deadlines - Lots of Clocks

Do you feel the frustration of slow responsiveness when faced with looming deadlines?

Hanging on by your fingertips

Lack of support

To thrive as a paralegal, you need peer and supervisor support at your workplace and outside support such as friends and hired help. A co-worker to walk and vent at lunch can reduce stress. Quality daycare can ease concerns about your child’s wellbeing so that you can focus on your work. 

Lacking support at work or home or both of these areas can cause burnout. 

One of the challenges of the work-from-home orders has been a lack of both office and outside support. While online visits with friends and colleagues can help with connections, it does not replace the relationship building which occurs over a casual cup of coffee. 

Virtual school has turned many paralegals into their child’s teaching assistant. Having to finalize a pleading while fixing the technical issues making it difficult for your child to attend school leads to grey hair!

 

Missing the support of co-workers and the peace of mind knowing that your child is being taught by a teacher in the classroom?

Misalignment with values

When contemplating an offer of employment with a law firm or legal department, make sure there is an alignment between your values and those of the company. Constant clash between your values and the mission of the company or firm client can wear you out.

For example, an animal activist paralegal probably should not accept a job at the legal department of a meat producer.  

Do you know your core values so that you can make sure you are aligned with a company’s mission and will fit with the company’s culture?

You need to understand your core values and non-negotiables before you accept a job.

No one wants to dread going to work every day.

Core Values
Confusing signs

Poor communication

While language is the primary tool in the legal toolbox, not everyone in the legal field is a good communicator. 

When you are unclear about what your supervisor’s expectations are, you will have a tough time doing a great job. 

Dr. Geri Puleo found that 90% of female employees reported that poor communication resulted in burnout. Dr. Puleo found that the lack of clarity, brevity, and purpose behind the communication to be the underlying issues.

Removing in-person communication from the mix increases miscommunication. Intonation and non-verbal communication are missing from electronic communication. 

Think that video conferencing would solve that problem?

Many people are turning their cameras off during video conferences as they find it distracting to see an image of themselves on the screen!

 

Do you find it difficult to not stare at the image yourself during a video conference?

Inequitable treatment

Being treated unfairly will wear you out. 

Researchers have known for a long time that the lack of fairness and reward for effort can lead to burnout. Even children find it unacceptable to treat individuals doing the same work differently. 

The inequity is not limited to pay differences for the same work; it could also be as simple as someone receiving preferential treatment in connection to workload. The unequal treatment or reward has a soul eroding effect.

Do you feel as though you are not treated fairly at work?

Tipped scales
Hair Raising High Pressure

Working in a high-pressure environment

The legal field is a high-pressure work environment filled with pending court or business deadlines and large workloads requiring consistent high-quality work-product. 

While some pressure keeps boredom at bay (which is good, as boredom can also lead to burnout) and improves performance, too much pressure leads to overwhelm, poor performance, and burnout. 

What is too much pressure? 

The Yerkes-Dodson law, developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerks and John Dillingham Dodson, explains the relationship between performance and mental arousal. Mental arousal helps performance increase but beyond that peak performance point, work suffers and burnout starts. The process from boredom to exhaustion is on a bell-shaped curve. Staying near or at the top of the curve is the goal.

 

Does the high-pressure environment challenge you in a good way (eliminates boredom and makes you sharp) or do you feel as though you are being crushed (like coal being turned into a diamond)?

Unmanageable workload

The difference between a heavy workload and an unmanageable one is individual. What one paralegal can handle would drown another. 

A short sprint of a heavy workload can be manageable when the extraordinary workload will end once a goal is hit, such as the end of a trial. (Hopefully with a break included as part of the recovery.)

The marathons of extraordinary workload can lead to burnout. The relentless overwhelm of too much work to do in a day and starting each day behind wears down even the toughest of professionals.

Are you drowning under your workload?

Overworked paralegal surrounded by paperwork
Perfectionist Paralegal

Perfectionist attitude

Those drawn to the paralegal profession usually are Type A people with a drive towards excellence. High standards and excellence are virtues within the legal profession and beyond. 

But as with many things in life, too much of a good thing is not good. Ironically, perfectionism can keep you from achieving your goal of excellence and can lead to burnout.

According to Psychology Today, perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures, to avoid failure or harsh judgment. Brené Brown, a writer and professor at the University of Houston, differentiates between perfectionism and healthy achievement. Perfectionism is a shield to protect you from the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.

While error-free work is standard for legal documents, strive to avoid the mire of perfectionism. Plan to carefully proofread your work and don’t let an internal perfectionist stop you from starting!

Now that you know the 10 leading causes of burnout, you can be on guard. Our next blog will help you to avoid burnout.

If you feel that the best solution is a new job – make sure to check out our paralegal resume tips and what to avoid when crafting a killer paralegal resume!

Do you know of other causes of burnout? Do you feel as though you are close to burnout? Come share in the Official Paralegal Club Facebook Group so that we can help each other navigate through the challenges of being a paralegal.

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