Burning Out In 2020 - By Dr. Isobelle Smith


Burnout is one of the great epidemics of the 21st century. The concept emerged in the 1970s amongst human services workers, however, since then has extended to other occupations with everyone from shop assistants to lawyers suffering burnout.

There are numerous theories and potential causes for why we’re all getting so burnt out, however longer than ever working hours, an immensely competitive job market and the fact that outside of work we’re contactable on more platforms than I have toes, are thought to be major players in the burnout game.

Although most people are familiar with the term, a lot of people don’t actually know what it means to be “burnt out”. You may have even had burnout yourself but confused it with depression, stress or even laziness.

When I was a junior doctor, I used to legitimately hope I’d get appendicitis so I could have time off work. I now realise I didn’t have some rare psychiatric condition in that people wish illnesses on themselves. I was just “burnt out".


Firstly, let’s talk about what it’s not;

  • It’s not depression, although it can lead to depression.

  • It’s not being stressed, but chronic stress increases the risk of it.

  • It’s not laziness or being an inherently rude person or “bad” at your job, although from the outside it could appear that way.

Rather and as per the WHO, “burn out” is characterised by 3 hallmark signs;

1. Emotional Exhaustion

Indifference towards colleagues, managers and/or clients. Cynicism, lack of compassion and generally not giving two hoots about your job.

2. Depersonalisation

Feeling disconnected from your body and self. You’re aware that your doing things but almost feeling like an observer in a dream.

3. Sense of low personal accomplishment

e.g. Feeling like you’re not accomplishing much or your work isn’t of high importance. Undervaluing your own self worth and contributions in the workplace.

Other warning signs of burn out include irritability, tiredness, frustration, feeling overwhelmed and like the person who used to love their job is a whole different person to who you are now.

Maybe I’m biased, but to me, these points are particularly concerning. Doctors and nurses are the groups most at risk of burnout, feeling that looking after people’s health is of low importance is a terrifying concept.

Dr Isobelle K Smith
Dr. Izzy Smith

My Personal Experience

Using my own experiences as an example, I was very burnt out after my specialist exams followed by a continuous 12 day on, 2 day off roster working in rural oncology.

I pride myself on always being polite, kind and having time for communicating with my patient’s families. I knew I was getting burnt because I was becoming short and snappy with nursing staff and getting irritated with patients or their families for asking too many questions.

This was not the doctor I trained to be and was the equivalent of a big flashing neon sign telling me I needed a break! At the time I wondered if I was depressed. This is not uncommon as despite there being distinct differences, burn out is often confused with depression.

Burnout vs Depression

The simplest way to distinguish between burn out and depression is if the lack of interest and enjoyment is defined to the workplace vs extending to other aspects of life.

E.g. If you’ve always loved watching the footy or playing with your dog, you’ll still enjoy them if you’re burnt out. This is in contract to depression which usually impacts enjoyment across all areas of life. Further differences are that symptoms of burning out improve with a holiday/decrease in workload and self-worth is usually preserved.

Finally burnt out is associated with irritability, cynicism, and hating your job which is less common in depression.


So now we know what burn out looks like (and you’ve probably realised you’ve had it in the past), its time to think about what causes burnout.