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Keep an eye out for burnout

16 July 2013

If a colleague is struggling with their job and you can observe lack of efficacy, exhaustion or diminished interest, they may well be suffering from burnout.

As a psychological concept, burnout is relatively new. Even before psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term in 1974, author Graham Greene wrote about it in his 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case.

Greene’s story is of a famous architect, Mr Querry, who no longer finds meaning in art or pleasure in life. He travels to a leper colony in the Congo, where the resident doctor diagnoses his condition as the mental equivalent of a “burnt-out case” – a leper who has gone through a stage of mutilation.

Burnout, put simply, is lost energy and lost enthusiasm.

Now recognised as a leading psychologist in the burnout field, Dr Christina Maslach developed a measure that weighs the effects of emotional exhaustion and reduced sense of personal accomplishment. It is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (C Maslach, S E Jackson & M P Leiter, MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual, Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996).

Dr Maslach and her colleague, Michael Leiter, defined the antithesis of burnout as engagement. Engagement is characterised by energy, involvement and efficacy, the opposites of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

Burnout, Dr Maslach says, is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”

She described the following signs:

  • decreased energy – “keeping up the speed” becomes increasingly difficult;
  • feeling of failure in vocation;
  • reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project;
  • a sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems; and
  • cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally.

Burnout is not stress, not even cumulative stress, however.

One person, for example, may not handle pressure well and can experience burnout despite having few stressors. Another person can effectively deal with a far greater number of stressors, and so avoid burnout.

Burnout is not solely caused by stressors such as too much work or too many responsibilities. Other factors contribute, including certain personality traits, lifestyle and what you do to relax.

The difference between burnout and stress is illustrated in table below, from Stress and Burnout in Ministry by Rowland Croucher ( Interestingly, conditions such as stress, depression, drug abuse and burnout are high among the clergy, doctors and lawyers.

You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • most days are bad days;
  • you’re always exhausted;
  • caring about work or home life seems like a total waste of energy;
  • most of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming; or
  • you feel that nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

You can do something about burnout, or help a colleague to do so.

One important thing to do is learn how to manage stress. If you’re burnt out, or on the road to burnout, you can feel helpless in the face of stress. Starting to manage it can reduce that feeling of helplessness and bring some balance.

Start the day with a relaxing ritual, rather than jumping out of bed, hitting a high GI breakfast and a cup of coffee, and swinging into your day.

Find an activity to help you transition from one level of intensity (such as work) to another (such as home). It can be as simple as going for a walk. Dr Maslach calls this “decompression” – like a diver going from one level of pressure to another.

Healthy eating, exercising and sleeping helps, just as it does with stress and your health generally.

Set yourself boundaries. Learn to say “no” and don’t take on too much.

Take a break from technology. There’s a certain tyranny about things like emails, phones that now go everywhere with you, your iPad and your laptop.

Be creative. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. All sorts of hobbies and activites use our creative side. Get involved with them.

An excellent resource is the book Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work by Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach, ISBN 9780470448779.

It would be a very useful addition to any law firm’s library.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016