Work + Growth

The Top Signs of Work Burnout—and How to Recognize Them

  • There’s a difference between normal lawyerly stress and the kind of chronic stress that causes work burnout, and it’s important to recognize the warning signs of the latter
  • Excessive fatigue, inability to focus, extreme moodiness, disengagement, and feeling ineffective are five of the top signs of burnout in lawyers
  • If you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, that’s OK! Recognizing the signs is the first step to improving your situation at work

Let’s face it: Most of us are stressed out.

Stress is part of the package deal of being a lawyer, along with long days, billable hours, and knowing more Latin phrases than any of our non-lawyer friends and family.

But there’s a difference between getting stressed out from time to time and experiencing chronic stress, which often leads to burnout. While burnout is a problem in our field for a number of reasons, many lawyers have a tough time recognizing it in themselves because the signs aren’t unique to the condition. However, if you can learn the symptoms of burnout, it’s possible to stop it in its tracks, improve your situation, and get back to feeling like yourself.

Here are five of the top signs of work burnout for lawyers:

1. You’re Tired All the Time

A deep sense of exhaustion – physical and/or emotional – is one of the first signs you might be suffering from burnout. If no amount of sleep ever feels like enough and you’re struggling to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, something isn’t right. It’s a given that most lawyers will have to burn the candle at both ends at least some of the time, but you shouldn’t constantly feel completely drained. Take note if even a vacation isn’t enough to help you feel refreshed.

2. You’re Unable to Focus

Have you been stuck on the same doc review for what feels like forever, unable to focus enough to make any progress? You might be experiencing burnout. One big (and especially unfortunate for lawyers) side effect of the chronic stress that leads to burnout? An inability to concentrate, as our brains are built to handle stress in small bursts and not constantly. If you’re struggling to focus, having trouble remembering important facts, or are more forgetful than usual, you might be burnt out.

3. Your Emotions are out of Control

It isn’t only lawyers who can get overly emotional when we’re suffering from work burnout, but it’s a rather common symptom for us. Are you more irritable than usual, prone to crying spells, or even experiencing anxiety attacks? Did you have a bad day in court, then throw your coffee mug across your office in anger? Burnout can lead to frequent – sometimes extreme – mood changes, fueled at least in part by emotional exhaustion.

4. You’ve Checked Out

Do you remember what led you to pursue law in the first place?

Do you feel good about yourself as a lawyer and the work you’re doing? If you’re burnt out, probably not. Feeling disengaged – you might think of it as feeling “checked out” – is the opposite of how you should feel at work (engaged, energized, committed). If you used to commit extra time and effort to your work, but now don’t care to put in anything other than the bare minimum because you’re feeling cynical and detached, you might be experiencing work burnout.

5. You Feel Ineffective

Chances are, if you’re feeling ineffective at work, it’s because you’re experiencing at least one of the other warning signs of burnout listed above. Think about it this way: If you feel like you’re working hard but aren’t making any progress or attaining any recognition, there’s a good chance it could be because you’re simply not at your best when you’re exhausted, depressed, checked out, or unable to concentrate.

If you’re experiencing work burnout, it’s important to remember above all that it’s not your fault. Any number of things about being a lawyer can contribute to your feelings, and burnout is unfortunately common among our peers. The good news is burnout doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. If you recognize the signs, there are ways to recover and get back on track.