On Well-Being

Depleting reserves can lead to burnout

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How am I supposed to find time for self-care when I’m working 14-hour days and haven’t had a day off in months?”

I often encounter questions like this when I teach mindfulness workshops at law firms. Billing time in six-minute increments naturally creates a dynamic where lawyers may feel as though they must work around the clock. Further complicating the issue is the fact that each billable hour is generally treated the same, without weighing the value or the quality of the time. When I’m working on a bankruptcy matter, an hour spent reviewing a deposition transcript is billed at the same rate as when I come up with a novel way of potentially discharging a six-figure tax debt.

Compounding the problem is what I’ll call practicing “martyrdom law.” It’s the idea or belief that you must sacrifice yourself and your well-being for the good of your clients or your law practice. Lawyers sometimes confuse being a “good” lawyer with a lawyer who dedicates all waking moments to law practice. There also seems to be the expectation that law practice shouldn’t be pleasurable, fulfilling or enjoyable. If you are happy at your job, you must not be practicing law correctly.

To be clear, I am not devaluing hard work or saying law practice should be easy. What I am saying is that law practice should not require you to sacrifice your health—the most obvious reason for that being that your well-being is the cornerstone of being a good lawyer.

Delicate balance

I often coach lawyers who struggle with trying to balance the intensity of law firm life with family obligations. I deeply relate to their struggles. As a mom of a 2-year-old and a lawyer myself, I am familiar with the constant balancing act, trying to keep my head above water. I see lawyers approaching work-life balance solely as a math problem. The challenge is to figure out how to properly allocate the 1,440 minutes of every day so that not a single minute is wasted. If they could just figure out how to budget time with more precision, more efficiency, the problem would be solved. Yet no matter how many planners, checklists or time management tools are adopted, it’s seemingly impossible to find the right balance.

A helpful reframing may be to not only think about work-life balance as a time management issue but also in the context of properly managing the body budget. The concept of a body budget was promoted by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. In her book, she explains that the body keeps a budget, and like your household budget, you make deposits and withdrawals. Certain activities—such as exercise, food, sex, connection with others, experiencing awe, practicing mindfulness and meditation—serve to increase your body budget. One of the brain’s primary functions is to make predictions about your body budget and allocate resources appropriately. “When your brain predicts that your body will need a quick burst of energy, these regions [in the brain] instruct the adrenal gland in your kidney to release the hormone cortisol,” she writes.

Similar to your personal finances, it’s important to establish a solid foundation for the body budget so it can survive the many events that will drain the balance. Occasionally working too many hours or experiencing short periods of high stress is unlikely to have any long-term effect on your well-being, provided that there’s enough reserve in the budget and you engage in activities to replenish it. The trouble arises when the body budget goes in the red and remains there for too long.

Paying the piper

Barrett writes that chronic misbudgeting can lead to the body summoning the “debt collectors,” the immune system. When the body is under prolonged stress, it produces cortisol and proteins called proinflammatory cytokines. This leads to a vicious cycle in which the brain tries to conserve energy. You feel tired, maybe even feel sick, and you find it more challenging to engage in the very activities that will recharge the body budget. You may sleep less, exercise less and begin to eat more poorly when experiencing chronic stress. You may also socialize less. In other words, the longer the body remains in a state of chronic stress, the more difficult it is to bring your body budget into solvency.

This chronically depleted body budget leads to a host of diseases and related health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, insomnia, reduced memory, depression and anxiety, in addition to other cognitive functions related to dementia and premature aging.

As explained above, it’s precisely when you need to unplug and recharge that there’s the most resistance to it. When you begin to peel back the layers of the belief that “I cannot practice self-care because I must be available at every spare moment,” you may realize that is faulty thinking. Sometimes, the underlying belief is that staying really busy feeds the feelings of being needed or being important. Other times, it’s a way of avoiding exploring more difficult questions.

My advice is this: Make your body budget a priority. If you notice resistance to this, become curious. Start by noticing the beliefs you hold about work as they relate to your well-being. Another question to consider is, “What is my body budget?” The practice of checking in with yourself is a form of mindfulness. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. By asking yourself how you are feeling, you’re opening the door to exploring what would help to recharge your body budget. It doesn’t have to be a huge or radical change (although it could be). Simple changes such as prioritizing and committing to getting enough sleep, spending more time in nature every day, reading for pleasure or connecting with loved ones can make a huge difference in your well-being in the long run. I am stating the obvious, but sometimes a reminder is helpful: We all need time to work, time to rest, time to play, time to spend with loved ones and time to just be.

This story was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Balancing Your Body Budget: Depleting reserves can lead to burnout.”

Jeena Cho is a coach and a consultant who works with law firms on stress management, well-being and mindfulness. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.

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