What is Burnout?
Burnout is typically a type of work-related stress— a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. Burnout was first described by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, following his observations of volunteers who became increasingly disimpassioned with their stressful work at a Mental Health Clinic in New York City.
Since then, the term quickly gained popularity in the mass media. Amongst clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, however, the issue of whether burnout should be a medical diagnosis remained a source of contention until very recently.
Burnout becoming recognized as a syndrome
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) announced that it updated its definition of burnout in its newest version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases — ICD-11 — which will become effective in January 2022. Previously, the WHO defined burnout as simply a “state of vital exhaustion.” In its newest handbook, however, burnout is recognized as a syndrome that is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job or reduced professional efficacy.”
It should be noted that, however, that the handbook clarifies that “burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” It also requires that mental health professionals to rule out anxiety, mood disorders and other stress-related disorders before making a diagnosis of burnout syndrome.
What is the Difference between Stress and Burnout?
It is important to underscore the distinction between burnout and other mental health conditions, such as depression and stress. While stress contributes to burnout, stress and burnout are not the same thing. Everyone experiences stress sometimes, it’s a day-to-day experience that comes with the territory of being human. There’s a light at the end of the stressed out tunnel. Burnout, on the other hand, occurs over a prolonged period and is cyclical in nature.
There’s no light with burnout, just a dark tunnel that seemingly never ends.
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout happens when people lack the resources to cope with what’s being demanded of them. To be clear, burnout isn’t just the product of long hours or a demanding workplace. Instead, burnout is likely to occur when a person:
(i) lacks control over workplace demands (deadlines, demands, working hours, etc), and
(ii) lacks sufficient reward for the work (e.g., job satisfaction, promotion, or recognition).
Thus, organizational and individual factors play a large role in burnout and will ultimately act as both the prevention and cure for burnout.
What are the Symptoms of Burnout?
One of the drawbacks of burnout not being a recognized disorder is that the list of symptoms hasn’t been standardized. Burnout presents differently for each person suffering it. For some, it’s weight gain or an unusually high craving for sweets, for others, it’s insomnia and feelings of helplessness. Some of the typical symptoms of burn-out include the following:
This goes beyond just feeling tired – it’s the type of tired that seeps into your bones and your soul. You might find yourself getting angry with colleagues or loved ones over something insignificant, or you may feel detached and disenchanted. Many people report feeling like a shell of their former selves.
People who are burned out no longer find meaning in the work that they do. For burned-out lawyers, this might appear as an absence of joy following something that formerly would have felt like a win – a good outcome for a client, winning a case, or bringing in a new client, for instance.
Feelings of Inefficacy
Individuals suffering from burnout often experience drops in productivity and perceived drops in competence. These feelings may be exacerbated by the perceived increase in effort required to complete the work.
Burnout is not the same as depression. It may, however, put sufferers at greater risk of experiencing depression.
Could You Be Experiencing Burnout?
According to the Mayo Clinic website, one way to determine whether you are experiencing burnout is to ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be experiencing burnout. Consider talking to a doctor or a mental health provider because these symptoms may also be related to serious health conditions, such as depression.
You can read more about lawyer burnout in our blog post, “Solving the Lawyer Burnout Problem“.
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