How I coped with occupational burnout

"I was concerned that if I asked for help, people would question my capabilities, which would lead to negative feedback and limit my career prospects. The irony is that by not asking for help, my condition worsened until I was completely incapacitated."

By Eric Rugundu.

Shutter Stock Bought July 2024

There is an assumption in Big Law that only fee-earners are susceptible to occupational burnout. The reality is that law firms can be incredibly stressful environments for all staff, particularly where a culture of excessive working exists.

Law attracts a certain personality type – studious, risk averse, perfectionist, etc. Other character attributes include being individualistic and sensitive to negative feedback. These were the indicators that led me to study law. Halfway through my degree, I realised that legal practice was not something I aspired to, so I became a business development manager instead.

Tasked with supporting hundreds of partners with their personal billing targets, and brimming with my own career ambition, I soon found myself working long hours. Learned behaviour from my school days had proven to me that more effort yields better results, so I worked more hours.

Initially, this came with success and recognition that reaffirmed my efforts. Ultimately, it was unsustainable.

A typical Monday to Friday was 8am to 5pm, break for dinner, then 7pm to midnight. Saturday was a workday, albeit with fewer hours. Sundays were filled with dread about the workweek ahead.

I was rewarded well financially, so I felt obligated to provide a return on the firm’s investment. I also saw many others in the office working long hours, so I didn’t feel like I was doing anything unusual.

I describe occupational burnout as akin to sitting in your living room as the sun sets. The room gets darker, but it is a slow and gradual process. With your focus elsewhere, you likely won’t notice how dark the room has become until someone else walks in and turns on the light.

For months, I continued with this work pattern as I became increasingly isolated from friends and family, losing interest in my hobbies, and becoming intolerant with my colleagues. My productivity dropped and I lost the will to continue. I handed in my notice and took a break.

I assumed that not working for some time would be the solution, but it wasn’t. After several months of recuperating on my own, I was still withdrawn and unmotivated. I felt utterly hopeless and disinterested with life. I had no idea that I was suffering from occupational burnout until I spoke with my GP about my symptoms. Only then was I able to get the help I needed to get my life back on track.

One of the most challenging aspects of my experience was a sense of shame that I couldn’t hack the pressure.

True to my personality type, I believed that if I soldiered on in my work silo, things would improve. I was also concerned that if I asked for help, people would question my capabilities, which would lead to negative feedback and limit my career prospects. The irony is that by not asking for help, my condition worsened until I was completely incapacitated.

Head and shoulders of a young black man, wearing a red top and stood outside, smiling at the camera, Eric Rugundu

It's heartening to see that mental health is being given more priority in law firms. However, the increasingly competitive market means that many in the legal profession are still working long hours and therefor susceptible to occupational burnout. For me, it took years of professional help to recover from my experience. In extreme cases, we see heartbreaking examples like the death of Vanessa Ford.

I use the analogy of occupational burnout like being in a slowly darkening room because my experience required someone else to turn on the light and show me just how depressed and isolated I had become. That someone was a family member, but it could easily have been a concerned friend or work colleague. The challenge for those who may be experiencing occupational burnout is that they are so focused on the immediate work task at hand that they lose sight of the bigger picture, their wellbeing. Self-diagnosis is rare.

If you have noticed a personality change in someone working long hours over an extended period, don’t be shy about asking them if they are familiar with occupational burnout. Your intervention might be the light they need to gain perspective and seek help.

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