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Healthy Stress vs. Burnout: Recognizing Risk Factors for Attorney Disciplinary Action

Jennifer C. Zampogna, M.D., Director of Operations, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania

Some stress is healthy. A totally stress-free life is not only unrealistic but can actually be a harmful form of denial. Positive stressors can energize and motivate lawyers to be productive and creative problem solvers. Stress is usually tied to a specific endpoint or goal that can be reasonably accomplished, whereby there is an anticipated resolution of the stressor or ‘relief in sight.’

Stress becomes distress when it starts to negatively impact our view of ourselves and the world around us, our relationships, our efficacy, and our health and wellness. The point at which we cross that imaginary threshold from healthy, motivating stress to distress or negative stress is often only seen in hindsight and varies among individuals. Persistent distress can lead to burnout, which is a chronic state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion precipitated by prolonged stress that an individual believes cannot be abated. It often presents itself as a sense of dread about work, apathy, persistent cynicism and feelings of inadequacy, irritability, anger, a reduced sense of self-efficacy, reduced concentration, ‘brain fog,’ and diminished compassion for clients.

If left unaddressed, burnout can lead to the development of major depression and/or maladaptive coping skills ranging from emotional detachment, alcohol or other substance misuse, problematic gambling or shopping, over-eating, etc., which can in turn progress to substance use disorders, process addictions and eating disorders. Burnout can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues. It may manifest as physical symptoms including headaches, muscle, body, and stomach aches, fatigue, and heartburn, among others. Based on the symptoms above, one can see how easily burnout and other mental health issues could lead to reduced efficiency, missed deadlines, compromised client service, reduced overall competence, and even disciplinary action if not properly acknowledged and addressed/treated.

Problematic gambling is a predictable reason why lawyers misappropriate client funds. As their gambling addiction progresses, they often incur significant debt, leading to such desperate acts. Without intervention and proper treatment, alcohol and other substance use disorders are usually progressive, leading to impairment, unprofessional behavior, and subsequent risk of disciplinary action. Other mental health issues like depression and anxiety, when left untreated or improperly treated, can be so debilitating that lawyers can barely function at work as their judgement, decision making skills, and even memory can be compromised.

It is imperative that the symptoms mentioned above are discussed with a healthcare professional, if possible, as burnout shares many overlapping symptoms with depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and other physical and mental health disorders. Undergoing an assessment by a qualified healthcare professional is often a vital first step to addressing these issues. The healthcare professional can determine the proper diagnosis and collaborate with the individual to develop and implement effective mitigation and/or treatment strategies. LCL can arrange a free and confidential evaluation by a vetted healthcare professional for lawyers, judges, their family members, and law students who may be facing these issues. With the right support and treatment, all of these conditions are manageable and conducive to a thriving legal career. When a lawyer seeks help and engages treatment early and proactively, the chances of future symptoms or behaviors developing that could lead to disciplinary action are significantly reduced.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a confidential and safe resource for Pennsylvania attorneys and their family members who may be struggling with their mental health or substance use. Since 1988, LCL has confidentially assisted and supported thousands of individuals who have faced a myriad of challenges (including grief, stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, gambling problems, problematic alcohol or prescription drug use, etc.), helping them navigate through dark and difficult times. If you or someone you know is struggling, please call LCL’s 24/7 confidential hotline, call 1-888-999-1941. You may save a life. There is help, and there is hope.

This article is part of a month-long series exploring lawyer well-being as misconduct prevention. Topics include challenges to mental health, stress and burnout, preventative strategies, employer support, and seeking support through LCL.

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