The Successful Woman Lawyer’s Kryptonite: Burnout

On the outside, you resemble superwoman, juggling kids, career and commitments without breaking a sweat. But on the inside, you’re tired — all the time.  Sometimes it seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Maybe you’re having difficulty concentrating, craving junk food or just feeling overwhelmed. You’re probably burned out, and you’re definitely not alone. Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz calls this “the Superwoman Syndrome”.

In a 2012 survey by Ipsos Reid for the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Profession Assistance Conference, 96% of women said they felt that stress and burnout were the most prevalent health and wellness issues facing lawyers today. Bottom line, burnout is the successful woman’s kryptonite.

This kryptonite weakens your superpowers by causing a variety of symptoms. These symptoms include low energy, fatigue, brain fog, the inability to concentrate, digestive problems and weight gain. You may also have cravings for sweets, or feel short-tempered or depressed.

Beyond these annoying symptoms, you’ve probably noticed your burnout is affecting your productivity and ability to achieve the healthy work-life balance you desire. But there is hope – there is a lot you can do to help yourself rebound from the burnout kryptonite and recharge your super powers.

Recharging your Super Powers

For 5 years I worked evenings at a large law firm while attending school during the day.  When I got home from work after midnight I would often stay up even later reading research or writing papers.  I was averaging about 3-5 hours of sleep per night.  Talk about burning the candle at both ends!  Despite attempts to exercise and eat healthy, my weight slowly crept up.  By the time I finished school I felt exhausted, depressed and self-conscious about my weight.  I didn’t even have the energy to revel in the success of all my hard work.  What I did to kick-start my recovery is the very first thing I recommend to all my clients who are similarly battling burnout: get yourself a good night’s sleep.

The Importance of Sleep

I’m sure it goes without saying that when we don’t get a proper night’s sleep we’re not at our best.  This is because sleep deprivation affects our moods, energy levels and concentration.  But did you know that it can also affect our ability to cope with stress, our immunity against colds and infections, our memory, and our weight?   Being sleep deprived is linked to sugar cravings and overeating.  This is because the hormone that regulates our appetite is over-stimulated trying to find fuel to keep us running, and the hormone that shuts down our appetite is decreased.

While some may say they are fine with 5 hours or less of sleep (I used to be one of them!), a huge body of research has shown that time and time again adults (18+) need at least 7.5-9 hours of sleep each night.  This does not include time in bed while you fall asleep.  Research shows us our sleep cycles are 90 minutes long, and we need 5 uninterrupted sleep cycles for a full night’s sleep.  That is how we end up with the magic number of 7.5 hours needed for sleep.  It’s good to plan when you wake up based on this sleep cycle, because if you wake up in the middle of a cycle you will feel more tired. For example, getting a little bit more than 8 hours sleep is not as good as getting 7.5 hours sleep because you’ve woken up in the middle of a cycle.

However, the number of hours we sleep is not as important as the quality of sleep that we get.  We have four stages of sleep that we should go through each night – transition sleep, light sleep, deep sleep and then REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or dream sleep.  The deep sleep stage is when our body repairs itself.  This stage also has the biggest impact on the quality of our health, and our energy level for the next day.  Any disruption to this stage of sleep is when we will experience symptoms from sleep deprivation mentioned above, so it is paramount to ensure you are sleeping soundly throughout the night.

But I don’t have time to get 7.5 hours of sleep each night!

Now I recognize that getting a full night’s sleep may be a challenge for people for a variety of reasons (i.e., work, stress, kids or insomnia), so there are a couple of tips you can try to maximize the quality of sleep you are getting each night.  First, to the best of your ability restrict your caffeine intake to just mornings so by the time you go home the caffeine won’t impede your ability to fall asleep.  Second, practice some type of stress management, such as meditation, in the evening when you get home.  Whether it’s before your dinner, after the kids are asleep or right before you go to bed, the idea is to get your body out of stress mode and into relaxation mode.  Lastly, ensure that you are sleeping in a dark room.  If you raise your hand up and you can see it in front of you, you’re room isn’t dark enough.  Light interferes with our melatonin production which helps us have a restful sleep.  If you’re not able to get your room dark enough a sleeping mask works very well to shield your eyes from any light.

Feel better bit by bit

The road to recovery from burnout can take some time, so be patient and allow yourself the time to recover.  By focusing on your sleep quality first you will notice a significant improvement in your concentration, mood, energy and diet (the better rested you are, the less sugar cravings you will get).  To sum up, aim for at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night in a dark room after you’ve done a relaxation activity.  Once this stage is mastered, you’re ready to move onto the next stage in burnout recovery.  Stay tuned!

About the author

Michelle Heighington

I am a registered holistic nutritionist (RNCP and ROHP) who also holds a degree in medical anthropology. Having worked in the legal industry for 15 years I became familiar with the corporate lifestyle and culture, and how the dedication to work – and the addiction to caffeine and sugar cravings that come with it – can get in the way of achieving a desired work/life balance. Through corporate workshops, articles and providing customized nutrition advice tailored to busy lifestyles, I help people to stay healthy at work without losing billable hours or precious time after work. You can reach me at michelle@greystoneshealth.com or visit my website www.greystoneshealth.com.

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