Flip side of competence is being at high risk of burnout

Are you good at your job? If you answered ‘yes’, ask yourself: ‘What evidence did I consider?’ Most lawyers will point to the fact that they are getting work. Lots of it. Whether it is the senior partner winning the beauty parades, the new trainee being trusted with increasingly demanding work or the barrister with piles of briefs, the amount of work a lawyer does is taken as a key indicator of their quality. Unfortunately, the flip side of that competence is being at high risk of burnout. Indeed, if you thought you were not good at your job, you may already be suffering burnout.

Helen Conway

Helen Conway

Burnout is termed an ‘occupational phenomenon’ not a mental illness, but it is closely associated with depression and in my own life preceded it. It is defined in the World Health Organization’s 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases as ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. Its presence is measured by three main symptoms (although not everyone has all three).

The first is a feeling of exhaustion. If being stressed feels like there is too much demand on you then when burned out you feel empty and simply have nothing left to give.

The second is an increased mental distance from one’s job, not caring anymore or being negative about the job.  

The third is a reduced sense of professional efficacy. You may feel that you cannot get anything right. Or, it may be a sense that you are running on a hamster wheel, repeating tasks correctly but not achieving anything worthwhile. Burnout shows in uncharacteristic behaviour.

For me it was frequent weeping, and a strong desire to escape from under an avalanche of work, yet sitting at my desk at home-time unable to summon the energy to walk to the car. Others may experience feelings of panic or have sudden temper outbursts.

Christina Maslach’s research has identified six factors that lead to burnout: work overload; a lack of control (over the amount, type, nature or environment of your work); a perception of insufficient reward; lack of a community; a perceived absence of fairness; and a conflict between the job and the values you hold.

Will Meyerhofer (a lawyer who retrained as a psychotherapist) points out on his blog The People’s Therapist that lawyers who are good at their jobs tend to be given more and more work. The overload that results, and the inability to control the flow and pace of the work, is like being asked to run one marathon after another without any finishing line in sight. Despite the fact that the symptom of burnout is feeling inadequate and useless, the ultimate cause of the burnout may, ironically, be a failure to manage the impact of being excellent at your job.

So how can we protect and recover from burnout? Set a finish line and take time to acknowledge the end of big cases with a reward that takes you away from work. Spend time in the company of people who boost your energies and esteem, whether that is a curry with colleagues or taking your three-year-old nephew to play in the park. Take time off, both after those long-running and demanding cases, but also as part of your routine. If you are feeling symptoms now take sick leave. (If you need convincing that burnout justifies sick leave, read psychiatrist-turned-novelist Joanna Cannon’s beautifully written account of her own burnout, Breaking and Mending.)

An occupational health consultant once explained to me that ‘enough’ time off could usefully be measured in whether you felt bored towards the end of the leave. That is not the same as going back to work early for fear that you might become bored in the future. It is important to actually let yourself experience a little bit of boredom because that shows the body and mind are actually recovered.

Take some time to assess the activities you perform in the average week. Make a note of what you actually do and rank it on a sliding scale, with 0 being utterly draining of energy and 10 being something that instils pure unbridled joy. Then prioritise the higher-ranking activities, those that ‘fill you up and give you life’. Try to eliminate, delegate, limit or at least balance out the lower-ranked activities. If there are no high-ranked activities, consider carefully if that negativity is a sign of current burnout or whether, in truth, you are in the wrong job.

Working with a coach may help you to identify and alter mindsets that cause you to push yourself too hard and to find ways to reshape your job. Coaching can assist you to communicate your needs at work, to learn to set boundaries and say no, and to reshape the expectations of those around you. Useful work can be done working with your values and how they fit with the job you do, or on finding hidden or underused resources, both internal or external. In fact, research shows that building supportive relationships, whether with a coach, counsellor or with a mentoring colleague, as well as strong, honest, reflective social friendships, is a good protector against burnout and also a reparative tool.

As a judge, I used to think that constantly managing overfull lists, piles of paperwork and still making myself available to take floating or urgent cases with a smile, was a sign of strength. It was only after I burned out, tipped further into depression and then, in recovery, trained as a coach, that I learned my mindsets about work were actually weaknesses making me vulnerable to ill health. Asked now what makes a good lawyer I would answer: maintaining the consistent quality of your work and having excellent self-care skills. Understanding boundaries. Knowing when not to do what you are so good at…


Helen Conway is a district judge at Liverpool County Court