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Avoiding burnout in professional services firms

When you work in a professional services firm, the likelihood is you are under a degree of pressure to get the job done.  This pressure can lead to high performance, but it can also lead to burnout.  Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion. Around two thirds of the legal profession have experienced burnout – and this profession is not alone in having such worryingly high rates of negative stress. In this article, we explore how you can recognise the  impact your job is having on your wellbeing and what can you do to improve the balance.

The Yerkes-Dodson law: being in flow

The starting point that many psychologists use to describe stress is the Yerkes-Dobson model. This model identified an optimal level of stress, sitting between no  arousal (where performance is low) and too much arousal (where the individual becomes burnt out).

At it’s optimal level, arousal/stress, results in peak performance. This notion of arousal crosses over into theories about motivation. We search for stimulation to move out of our boredom zone. Individuals seek to find their optimal level, where they are engaged and alert. It is here that they are intrinsically motivated and “in flow”.  

The Yerkes-Dobson law
Stress curve

Being in flow

The optimal level of arousal can be considered as being “in flow”. Flow is where someone is absorbed in the task at hand. It has been described as having three elements: absorption; demand-skills are seen to be in balance; and, finally, there is enjoyment during the task. It is where we perform at our best.

Think of a time when you were “in flow”. What did you feel like? How well did you perform the task you were doing?

Studies have shown that when people are in flow they experience less burnout symptoms, despite the fact they are under a degree of stress. That is why some people talk about “healthy stress”.

Many professionals love what they do. They are driven and being “a lawyer/an accountant/a consultant/etc” is part of who they are. This is important because psychologists also talk about flow in the context of another related concept: passion.

Passion combines both a strong liking for something, as well as a link between the thing and the person’s identity. We see passion come through with the professions we coach.

There are two types of passion:

  • Harmonious Passion – where you do something because you love doing it, but where you can balance it with other things; and

  • Obsessive Passion – where you are so consumed by something that it can affect your life negatively.

Unsurprisingly, studies have found that harmonious passion is more likely to lead to flow.

How to understand whether you are heading for burnout

When we are coaching individuals, we often ask them to reflect on where they think they are on the curve most of the time.  Those in high-pressure jobs, often identify themselves as oscillating between optimal and too high levels of stress. That realisation can be sobering and itself lead to change.  

Many of us don’t recognise the impact the pressure of our jobs is causing until it goes too far. This isn’t something that we are taught, and when we see those around us coping with what we perceive to be the same level of pressure it makes us more determined to push through what can at times be unhealthy levels of arousal. The reality is that we all are affected differently by stress, for a host of reasons and not least given other pressures that we might have and which aren’t visible at work.

Most individuals know that if they are under too much pressure/stress then they need to reduce their load. However, that is often easier said than done for professionals. The trouble with boundaries and stress reduction is that for many professionals it is seen as too time consuming.

How to stay in flow and avoid burnout

Balance is something that many professionals find challenging. Much of the ability to balance comes back to boundaries. Here we would invite you to think about how much balance you currently have? Is that because of the pressure you put on yourself, or because of what those around you are demanding?

Thinking about reducing pressure often seems like an insurmountable task. For that reason we encourage you to start small. The first thing we invite our coaching clients to do is to track the levels of stress they are experiencing throughout the day.  How do your levels fluctuate. What do you notice when you are in lower, optimal or high stress levels? What are your reactions and what do you feel?

You might like to start to keep a stress diary. You can download one here:

Stress Tracker
Download PDF • 332KB

Do this for a week or two and start to notice what your triggers are. Perhaps there is a particular point in the day when things become too much, perhaps it is a result of your environment or certain demands. Noticing your triggers is the first step in controlling your stress. Don't forget to also notice what has been happening outside of work to increase or decrease your energy levels. Maybe you are most often at your optimal level in the morning after you have been for a run. Maybe your are more often tipped into high levels of stress in the morning, coinciding with a school run and navigating traffic.


Think about where you get your energy from and what depletes it. For some it might be exercise, for others it might be talking to friends and socialising. Thinking about how to block out chunks of time for the things that energise us can seem daunting to professionals who are working long hours and who just don’t see it as realistic to book in an evening with friends, or going for a daily run.  We encourage our clients to start small, to think about micro-moments that they can manage regularly.

What a micro-moment will be different for each of us. Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk a 5/10 minute walk outside, or even around the office, to get away from your desk and get some exercise

  • Do a short mindfulness exercise to take a time out.

  • If you get your energy from being on your own, block out some time in your diary where you focus on working rather than being available for enquiries from your team. Let your team know when you are available and how to identify when you are focused on reenergizing. Encourage them to do the same!

  • If you get your energy from being around others, go and find a colleague to connect with. Again, maybe you can identify other team members who would benefit from these interactions.

  • Breathing exercises can also help us to engage our parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the stress that is building up.

  • Drink a glass of water. Honestly, something this simple can make a difference!


Getting on top of stress and avoiding burnout can be a serious challenge. Long-term stress and burnout can lead to depression and anxiety. Firms will have support in place for those who are struggling and we would encourage you to seek help if you need it. As well as employee help lines support is availableCoaching can help you set boundaries and gain some control.




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