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The Army Lawyer | Issue 1 2022View PDF

Practice Notes: Preventing Burnout in a Post-COVID-19 World

(Credit: foto_tech –

(Credit: foto_tech –

Practice Notes

Preventing Burnout in a Post-COVID-19 World

The last two years have brought on a never-before-seen era. We transitioned from seeing colleagues daily in the office to occasional meetings on Zoom: a new reality that was likely welcomed by some and hated by others. This shift was dramatic—we all learned new skills to manage our home office (errr dining room) situations. Courtroom proceedings were likely delayed, completed virtually, or awkwardly accomplished in large conference rooms, with chairs and tables placed six feet apart. Some families dealt with the added stress of home-schooling their children while grieving for those whose health was affected by COVID-19. On top of the global pandemic, this nation witnessed never-before-seen events, to include protests against racially-motivated police violence, and, generally, a level of social unrest that has not been witnessed in this country for decades. Particularly poignant for Service members was the decision to formally and finally withdraw forces from Afghanistan—a decision that was welcomed by some and unwanted by others.

As attorneys and paraprofessionals, you work in an incredibly difficult and stressful environment—notwithstanding a global pandemic or national unrest. Success is often measured in work hours, a metric that is established early during law school. Therefore, it is only natural to put in long work hours in a high-pressure environment. Attorneys are asked to carry the burden of emotionally-driven clients and situations, while also appearing to be unwavering and invulnerable to stress. Even as a staff judge advocate, you are the rock to your commander, often providing difficult and urgent recommendations to the command team. There are insurmountable and unique pressures on each attorney across the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, no matter the specialty—trial defense, special victim counsel, special victim prosecutor, or trial counsel.

We are all human, and as such, we all have individual and personal reactions and opinions about the pandemic, vaccine, protests, and withdrawal from Afghanistan. As consultants and advisors to your clients (to include the command), at times, it may have been difficult to separate your personal reactions from the task at hand. You are asked to provide legal guidance to your commanders as a neutral party, adhering to the law. This can be a challenging task, as stifling personal reactions can add to overall stress and feelings of incongruence and job dissatisfaction.

Pre-pandemic, attorney burnout was a constant concern.1 The pandemic likely increased the already existing potential for burnout. Unlike the majority of the world, the Army continued to roll along. The Army continued to move Soldiers and families to new locations and, in many offices, did not implement teleworking in order to keep the courses and schoolhouses graduating new Soldiers and qualified Rangers, jumpmasters, and operators. Of course, the pandemic made some of these more routine events slightly more complicated. The pandemic also created a social isolation situation for some individuals. For Soldiers who moved during the pandemic, they may have found themselves struggling with logistics and experiencing a loss of personal connections that are typically found in joining a new office. Most hail and farewells were nixed in an attempt to keep large group gatherings at a minimum.

When we talk about burnout, it should be emphasized that burnout is not just working long hours. It is a combination—an imbalance of sorts—of working hard, having increased job demands, not having control, and not feeling rewarded.2 In some ways, the pandemic only reinforced this burnout equation. Leadership has asked Soldiers to still work hard (either remotely or in person), and for the most part, units have erased all of the “positive” reward-type activities (organizational days, hail and farewells, etc.). As mentioned, part of the burnout equilibrium includes a feeling of low control. Decision latitude is a measure of control and involves the amount of real or perceived options an employee has while completing their work.3 Lawyering is a deadline-driven profession, you often have demanding clients (for the military, that could include commanders or defense or legal assistance clients), and you have little autonomy to complete your work.

Another layer to this combined challenge of COVID-19 and burnout is having children at home due to remote learning or closed child care centers. Now that many children have returned to in-person school, there is still the interruptive, occasional remote learning due to a classmate testing positive to COVID-19. Finding time to work uninterrupted may mean working late at night when the children are sleeping or dipping into personal or relationship time. Reducing this personal time to attend to work matters can often lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, anxiety, and ultimately, burnout. Also, while this might seem counterintuitive, not having a daily commute to and from the office can also contribute to loss of boundaries (between work and home) and feelings of being overwhelmed. Many individuals use the commute as a time to decompress or unwind from the work day. Without this, the transition time is lost.

The American Bar Association (ABA) recently conducted a survey during the pandemic. Approximately 40 percent of attorneys reported that the pandemic itself added to their overall work-related stress.4 Research shows us though, that females and racial minorities may have been impacted differently. For females, they experienced greater disruption in work than males (52 percent compared to 34 percent, respectively), as females were more likely to report the following: increased frequency of work disrupted by family and household obligations, feeling that it was hard to keep work and home separate, and feeling overwhelmed with all of the tasks they had to do.5 The authors also found that persons of color reported having greater difficulty taking time off from work and were more likely to think the day never ended.6

The key to managing all of these stressors: do not allow the stress to get out of hand. I know this is more easily said than done. Mitigation is the goal. I love using this example with the JAG officer basic course students, and despite all of the eye rolling and laughing, I think it effectively illustrates the point of mitigation: When the check engine light on the car comes on, that is the warning to you that something out of character is happening with your car. Our bodies give us the same warning, but it is up to us to pay attention to it and address it. Insight is essential for mitigation. Without insight, you are powerless to make any changes; however, even further, without change, insight is useless.

Having open dialogue regarding the challenges facing attorneys via dedicated education and presentations is an effective tool to support your office. Facilitating personal connections is another way for offices to support their Soldiers. If you are unable to connect in person or in large groups, scheduling a virtual hail and farewell, happy hour, or other gathering could be just as effective. Additionally, encouraging collaboration is a way for Soldiers to develop relationships that may not otherwise occur.

In addition to taking steps for education about burnout prevention, good self-care practices should be emphasized. As long as you are interacting with clients and practicing law, you will be exposed to stressful situations that may lead to instances, episodes, or seasons of burnout. This is not to say that being an attorney is a hopeless endeavor; rather, it is intended to acknowledge and normalize this as part of one’s career. Preventing and mitigating burnout involves using a set of skills that are practiced over time.

Attorneys should develop habits of self-monitoring and engage in a continuous cycle of self-assessment. Some attorneys may find clients with trauma to be the most stressful, while others may find testimony about domestic violence events to be stressful. Everyone will respond and react differently. It is common for responses to ebb and flow over time, which may mean scheduling time annually or biannually to attend to self-care, instead of waiting and addressing these issues only in crisis moments. During the moments of crisis, attorneys should already be aware of the resources available to them—for example, engaging in mindfulness techniques, going to a specific place that feels calming, engaging in physical activities aimed at releasing tension, or reaching out to a trusted colleague.

Cultivating a support team can also be beneficial: individuals from whom they may not only seek support but who they know will speak honestly and openly with them if their behavior changes. One of the most precarious situations is an attorney who has started to show symptoms of burnout that endangers ethical responsibilities but has not yet behaved in a way that has come to the attention of the disciplinary bar. Other attorneys could use this as an opportunity to speak up or confront the attorney, because if the behavior goes unchecked, it may escalate or create further problems for the colleague.

(Credit: Josie Elias –

(Credit: Josie Elias –

Research found that attorneys report using a variety of strategies to manage stress—staying physically active, spending time with spouse and family, hobbies, traveling, and participating in local communities.7 Regardless of the activity though, attorneys emphasized the importance of stepping away from their legal work, if only for a short time. These strategies may even contribute to being a better attorney, as they can help restore life balance, increasing efficiency.

For the past two years, the issues of JAG Corps burnout and wellness have been at the forefront of discussions at the highest levels of leadership. Wellness programs that target these specific issues of burnout are in the process of being constructed in the near future for the JAG Corps. Until those programs come to fruition, best practices include the steps identified above, and ensuring that individually, and as leaders, you are constantly re-assessing your general health and well-being, while also actively engaging your junior Soldiers in discussions that normalize symptoms of burnout and encourage prevention and treatment. TAL

MAJ Blood is a licensed psychologist (clinical and forensic) and serves as the forensic consultant for the Army Regional Health Command-Atlantic. She is currently assigned to the Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning, Georgia. She has been a guest speaker for both the U.S. Army Trial and Defense Counsel Advocacy Programs, as well as the Judge Advocate General’s Corps’s training programs more than twenty times on the issues of alcohol and memory, false confessions, vicarious traumatization, counterintuitive victim behavior, and attorney burnout.


1. See generally Major Rebecca A. Blood, Preventing Burnout in the JAG Corps, Army Law., no. 6, 2019, at 38.

2. See Christina Maslach & Susan E. Jackson, The Measurement of Experienced Burnout, 2 J. Occupational Behav. 99 (1981).

3. Martin E. P. Seligman et al., Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, 60 Am. Psych., 410 (2005).

4. Stephanie A. Scharf et al., Am. Bar Ass’n, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward: Results and Best Practices from a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession 17 (2021).

5. Justin Anker & Patrick R. Krill, Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys, PLoS ONE (May 12, 2021),

6. Id.

7. See Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46 (2016).