Burnout: Are You a Victim?

People talk a lot about burnout. It’s one of the most over-used terms that’s tossed about when discussing work and family responsibilities. Lawyers are particularly prone to and concerned about burnout. But how do you know if you are in fact burned out and not just tired and under stress? And if you are burned out, what do you do about it?

While “burnout” is over-used, it has a legitimate meaning in psychology, dating to Dr. Herbert Freudenberger’s book, published in 1980. The book laid out the symptoms someone suffering from burnout typically experiences.

Where does it hurt?

Victims of burnout often feel:

Exhausted. Everyone feels this way at times. Burned out people feel physically and emotionally exhausted all day, every day.

Detached.When things go wrong, personally or professionally, the burned out feel a temptation to emotionally respond with, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”

Bored. Once-exciting tasks and responsibilities become dull and seem to lack value.

Cynical. Healthy skepticism about others’ motives slides into cynicism, which is justifying selfishness and deception because one doubts or even despises human sincerity and merit.

Irritable. Temporary and occasional frustration at unexpected problems is replaced by a constant state of annoyance, bubbling over often into angry outbursts. This reduces productivity and strains work relationships, creating even more stress.

Irreplaceable. Every task is viewed as crucial, and the person constantly feels, “Only I can do this. It’s too important to delegate, and asking for help will show I am not capable.”

Paranoid. The burned-out not only feel unappreciated, but often suspect that others are plotting against them.

If you feel all or many of these symptoms, and you have been in a continuously extremely stressful work or family situation for an extended time, you are likely burned out.

What to do about it?

Seeking help is always a good idea, but lawyers tend to be reluctant to do so. If you are not ready to look for help, try the following:

Become self-aware. This means stepping outside the details of your day-to-day life and seeing the big picture. Imagine that a second you, in a perfectly calm and empathetic state of mind, are sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, observing you in your burned-out state. What would that person think? What would that person suggest you do?

Develop (or regain) perspective. Consider the task you are struggling with right now. How important is it in the (very) big picture? Is it life-or-death? If it’s not completed today, will your client lose? Can someone else complete this task? Would you really appear weak or lazy if you asked for help, or would you appear to be someone who can prioritize and delegate?

Release your inner funny. Humor can save your sanity. Find it, and use it to continually point out the hilarious absurdity of both your work and yourself.

Reserve the right to just walk away. Try as you might, you may find it impossible to create opportunity, happiness and success in your current job, relationship, at school, or in your living situation. Realizing that every moment of every day you choose to do what you are currently doing can help you cope. But some circumstances can’t be overcome, and you may need to make a major change.

(photo: Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    Great post!

    One caveat: before making a change, make sure that you have identified the real problem and the true source(s) of stress. For example:

    (1) If you hate the work that you do but think that your difficulty is that you hate your co-workers, a new job doing the same work doesn’t solve the problem.
    (2) If you practice law with toxic co-workers, leaving the practice of law may short-circuit an otherwise promising career.
    (3) Changing jobs is unlikely to be the fix for a truly troubled marriage.

  2. Avatar Perry Fisher says:

    Excellent article. Lawyers spend more time working and less time sleeping than any other profession. We got into this profession to help people but we need to remember to take time to look after the client in the mirror.

  3. Avatar Victoria Chandler says:

    Great article. Anyone who enters a profession such as law or medicine, who feels passionate about what they do, is apt to lose sight of the balance we need to maintain in our lives. If we would only remember to use the brake pedal occasionally and learn to trust our co-workers or staff more, then keeping the “burn-out” at bay would prove much easier.

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