Mental fitness: Danger of burnout syndrome is cause for future self-care

November 29, 2017

mental-fitness-murtaugh.jpgI gave my first public oral presentation about mental fitness in September. I spoke to an audience of about a dozen attorneys at the Tippecanoe County Bar Association monthly luncheon. I want to share the focus of that presentation with the readers of Indiana Lawyer.

The focus of my speaking engagement was burnout syndrome.

Burnout is something everyone can relate to and learn from, especially in the legal field. I shared information that applies to all legal practitioners, not just to lawyers and judges battling mental health issues. Specifically, I concentrated on the idea of neglecting one’s own needs, which is one of psychologist Herbert Freudenberger’s 12 stages of burnout. These are:

• A compulsion to prove oneself.
• Working harder.
• Neglecting one’s needs.
• Displacement of conflicts.
• Revision of values.
• Denial of emerging problems.
• Withdrawal from social contacts.
• Obvious behavioral changes.
• Depersonalization.
• Inner emptiness.
• Depression.
• Burnout syndrome.

D. Lukasik, Esq., “Overcoming Stress, Burnout, Anxiety, and Depression in the Legal Profession: How a Lawyer Life Coach Can Help,” p. 14, citing Freudenberger (2017).

Why do attorneys neglect their own needs? Here are some possible reasons I shared in the presentation:

• Fear of making mistakes.
• Fear of a disciplinary complaint.
• Competitiveness.
• Guilt from not meeting burdens.
• Anxiety over letting people down.
• Productivity pressure.
• Office culture.

Looking back, I now think that I was experiencing burnout syndrome when I contacted JLAP in 2015. At that time, I didn’t know it, and I had never heard of the 12 stages. I do remember feeling burned out. Journaling was cathartic and provided some relief from the emotional pain I felt at that time.

I recently read Hattie Gladwell’s Metro article about a day in her life with obsessive-compulsive disorder and it inspired me to share with you a day in my life in 2015 when I was in the middle of burnout syndrome. Here is a condensed excerpt from a journal entry I wrote throughout the day on Oct. 5, 2015, while I was in the office and struggling to function at my normal level.

9:42 a.m.: I need to work on this demand letter. I am feeling anxiety in my legs. At least it is not in my chest. Struggling to start. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be a lawyer, but I am scared to quit.

10:47 a.m.: I am struggling to get motivated. I do not want to be here. I want to go home and sleep.

4:07 p.m.: Miserable afternoon. Miserable. Feeling worse. The anxiety is in my chest and my legs. I hate this. I want relief.

6:07 p.m.: Leaving the office. Got a rough draft of the demand letter completed. Feeling much lighter.

Future mental fitness articles: Enough about me, let’s hear from you

I am just one voice. I have enjoyed writing about my experience with publicly sharing my diagnosis and my activities, but I am ready to highlight the experience of others.

Are you ready to share your story? You do not need to have to have a dramatic story.

There is such a broad spectrum of mental health conditions. For example, I think it would be very helpful to hear from someone who experiences mild depression or anxiety but does not have a need for medication. It would also be helpful to hear about balancing your law profession and being a caregiver to someone with a mental health disorder. Take the plunge and publicly share your story. Email me to be considered for a story in the 2018 column.

Beneficial articles and blogs

An Indiana University Riley Hospital for Children doctor, Adam B. Hill, publicly shares his mental health condition in a recently started blog, “Discovering humanity in a life of professional mental health and addiction recovery.” www.adambhillmd.com

Hattie Gladwell’s Nov. 13, 2017, Metro Article (referenced above); “Compulsions, intrusive thoughts and obsessive rituals: A day in the life of someone with OCD.” http://metro.co.uk/2017/11/13/compulsions-intrusive-thoughts-and-obsessive-rituals-a-day-in-the-life-of-someone-with-ocd-7074664/

Exercise: scheduled down time
After many attempts to follow through on my own advice, I have realized that daily mental fitness is not realistic for me. Goals are meant to be revised to best represent what you need. A more realistic goal for me is to schedule time for myself once a week, and do a three- to five-minute mental fitness exercise once a week.

Pull up your work calendar and add one 15-minute appointment to take time for you. Be your own client for this time. Take care of you.

Here are some examples:

• After a mediation or a deposition, take a detour on the return trip.
• After a court appearance, schedule a place to get a cup of coffee or read a magazine.
• After a lunch meeting, drive a scenic route and listen to music or enjoy silence.

At right is my mental fitness tracking log for my current goals.

I encourage you to use my log or email me for assistance in creating your own.


Reid D. Murtaugh — reidmentalfitness@gmail.com — is an attorney in Lafayette and the founder of Murtaugh Law. Learn more about Reid’s practice at www.murtlaw.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.


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