What is burnout

Burnout is described in the World Health Organization’s International Disease Classification (ICD-11) as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. According to the ICD-11, burnout is characterised 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; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Essentially, burnout is the result of exposure to excessive, prolonged stress which has not been effectively managed. Although the ICD-11 defines burnout as being an occupational phenomenon, research suggests burnout can also be experienced by people undertaking unpaid home or care duties as well. 

Although anyone can experience burnout, not everyone will. There’s likely to be a two-way interaction between environmental/situational factors and personality factors, which increases the risk of someone experiencing burnout. Work-related stressors may precipitate burnout, whereas predisposing personality factors may increase someone’s vulnerability of experiencing burnout.

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout impacts people differently and can vary in severity. Commonly reported symptoms of burnout include2:

  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Anxiety, stress, dread
  • Loss of joie de vivre, feeling empty
  • Indifference, apathy, lack of empathy
  • Disengagement, cynicism, negativity towards work
  • Low mood, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, reduced self-worth, self-doubt
  • Irritability, anger, impatience, agitation, frustration, resentment
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of motivation, passion and drive
  • Lack of satisfaction in life and/or work
  • Difficulty in concentrating, problems with planning, impaired decision making, reduced attention, poor memory, brain fog
  • Reduced performance
  • Procrastination
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Increased conflict in relationships with colleagues, friends and family
  • Headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension, changes to appetite, reduced libido
  • Reduced control of emotions, increased sensitivity, emotional outbursts, tearfulness

You don’t need to be experiencing all these symptoms to have burnout. Equally, if you’re experiencing some of these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean you have burnout.

Strategies to manage burnout

People can and do recover from burnout.

  • Recognise the signs
  • Get support – informal or formal
  • Identify factors which may be contributing to high levels of stress and burnout
  • Introduce strategies to manage and reduce stress, both in the immediate sense and ongoing
  • Address and make changes to the factors which may contribute to the cause of burnout

Self-care involves taking care of and maintaining your physical and mental wellbeing every day. Consistently engage in activities that support and nourish your wellbeing as part of your regular life.

Strategies to manage stress

  • Proactively look after your wellbeing (such as by incorporating the five ways to wellbeing)
  • Acknowledge and label what is going on for you
  • Practise regular mindfulness/meditation
  • Take care of your health – sleep, eat well, exercise, reduce consumption of alcohol
  • Get support – informal or formal
  • Engage in activities that help you to detach from work outside of work hours
  • Set boundaries and take breaks from work
  • Recognise the difference between actual time pressures vs those which are self-imposed
  • Change unhelpful habits
  • Reframe/challenge unhelpful thinking
  • Address unhelpful perfectionistic tendencies
  • Focus on those things which are within your control
  • Spend time with friends and family

Getting help

Don’t ignore the signs. Speak with a medical practitioner to rule out whether symptoms may be better explained by a physical or medical condition. A GP or other medical practitioner may also be able to offer advice on whether medication could be of assistance and provide referrals.

Psychologists can also help. A psychologist may ask questions to determine whether symptoms are consistent with a diagnosis of burnout or of something else, as the above symptoms also commonly occur with other conditions. The Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS) is an independent and confidential psychology counselling service for NSW solicitors. Call 1800 582 296 to access this service. Find out more about SOS here and about other services here.

The Solicitor Outreach Service – Help when you need it

If this article resonates for you, help is available. The Solicitor Outreach Service (SOS) is an independent and confidential psychology counselling service for NSW solicitors. You don’t have to be a breaking point to access help.

NSW solicitors can call SOS on 1800 592 296 for access to:

  • Up to three counselling sessions with an SOS psychologist per financial year, paid for by the Law Society of NSW
  • 24/7 telephone crisis counselling with a psychologist.

The SOS psychologists are familiar with the challenges commonly faced by NSW solicitors.

If your or someone else’s life is in danger, phone 000 immediately.

Additional resources

The below resources might also be of interest:

Sources of information

International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision (ICD-11), World Health Organization (WHO) 2019/2021 https://icd.who.int/browse11

Parker. G., Tavella, G., & Eyers, K. (2021). Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery. Allen & Unwin, Australia.

Miriam Wyzenbeek is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and the Law Society of NSW’s Wellbeing Manager.

First published Thursday 8 September 2022