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Burnout – an explanation

What is burnout?

Although commonly referred to today, burnout was originally identified by psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson back in the 1970’s. They defined burnout as the opposite of engagement. While engagement is categorised as energy, involvement and efficacy; burnout represents exhaustion, cynicism and inefficiency.

A dictionary definition describes it as –
“Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. It has also commonly been described as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion which has been caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Burnout therefore doesn’t happen overnight, it isn’t the exhaustion felt after a one-off stressful event or a feeling that no-one appreciates the hard work you’ve put into a project. In today’s vocabulary, it is sadly often misused in the same way we tend to overuse the word “flu”. How often do people say they’ve got flu when what they actually have is a bad cold?

The negative effects of burnout can affect your mental and physical health, as well as your work, home and social life so it is crucially important that it is dealt with as early as possible. For this reason, an awareness of its signs and symptoms are vital in order to notice them in yourself as well as those around you.

The good news is that it is possible to recover from burnout but, in the same way that it didn’t come on overnight, it will not disappear within a few days either.

The signs and symptoms

Before looking at the symptoms of burnout, it would be useful to outline the three inter-related components recognised in burnout syndrome.

  • The first component is exhaustion which can be mental, emotional and physical.
  • The second component is a slide into cynicism and detachment where both the quality and quantity of the sufferer’s work is affected and they distance themselves from unreasonable job demands. These feelings about their job can lead to them treating others within their environment with contempt.
  • The final component is a sense of ineffectiveness and complete lack of accomplishment, believing there is no social value in what they are doing and an overall feeling of personal failure.

The symptoms to look out for in terms of exhaustion include: insomnia; difficulties with concentration and attention; chronic fatigue; anxiety; appetite loss; catching frequent infections (e.g. colds); physical symptoms (e.g. headache, dizziness, stomach pain, heart palpitations); anger.

Those to look out for regarding cynicism and detachment include: pessimism; loss of enjoyment, initially with work but eventually with other areas of life; feelings of detachment from both people and your environment; isolation as you want to be on your own more and more and start to shut people out and avoid interaction.

The final component’s symptoms can include: lack of productivity and performance by not being able to produce work as you once did and it piling up all around you; feelings of increased irritability as a result of the frustration of feeling ineffective; acute feelings of apathy, helplessness and hopelessness where you feel that nothing is worth doing and there is no point in getting up in the morning.

What are the possible causes of burnout?

Although burnout is often said to be caused by workplace demands and expectations, anyone who feels undervalued and overworked is at risk e.g. the stay-at-home parent who has the daily responsibility of their children, their home and their own or a partner’s aging parents.

In the workplace burnout can be caused, amongst other things, by long hours, little time off and continual peer, customer and management scrutiny. Interestingly, it can occur in pockets within an organisation and the sufferers’ symptoms improve after changing department or if there is a timely change of supervisor/manager.

There is also an individual element, while one person’s personality traits may lead them to be able to deal relatively easily with particular stressors another’s may not. How you spend your time outside work and how you view the world can play as large a part in causing burnout as your work or home demands.

Work-related causes of burnout:
• Lack of control over your work
• No recognition or rewards for work achievements
• Job expectations which are vague or over demanding
• Monotonous tasks or work which presents no challenge
• A high pressure or chaotic working environment

Lifestyle causes of burnout:
• Spending too much time working and little time socialising or relaxing
• Being too many things to too many people
• Getting too little sleep
• Taking on too many responsibilities with little help from others

Personality traits which may contribute to burnout:
• A ‘Type A Personality’; high achiever
• The need to be in control with a strong reluctance to delegate to others
• Having perfectionist tendencies, nothing ever being good enough
• Holding a pessimistic view of yourself and the world

The difference between stress and burnout

Although the definition of burnout refers to it being caused by excessive or prolonged stress, it shouldn’t be confused with being under too much stress. Many people feel stressed because they are faced with too many pressures and demands but know that if they can just get everything back under control they will be okay and their energy and engagement will return.

Burnout sufferers, however, describe feelings of emptiness. They feel demoralised, drained, with no energy or motivation and their emotions can be blunted; they appear to be past caring. They often don’t see any hope of their situation changing for the better.

An important difference to remember is that while you are usually aware that you are under a lot of stress, you may not notice that burnout is happening until the symptoms are very severe.

How to cope with job burnout

Like many other psychological problems, burnout can be widespread in an organisation and may be the result of problems caused by little time off, long hours or micro-management. As has already been mentioned, if these are short term issues, many of us will get through them but if they are here to stay, your odds of burnout climb fast.

The most effective solution is to stop what you are doing, which could mean a change of job or career. However, given that this may well not be an option initially, there are things you can do to improve your state of mind by trying to improve your current working situation:
Take a proactive approach rather than a passive one – talk to your boss or HR department and try to get the problem solved by those who have the authority and/or resources.
Check your duties and responsibilities – ask your boss for a copy of your written job description and point out the things that you are expected to do which aren’t included within it.
Ask for a change – if you’ve been doing the same role for a long period of time and are jaded by it, ask if there is any alternative.
Take a break – use up your holiday allowance, or ask for some time off to take a complete break from work, re-charge your batteries and gain a new perspective.

The recovery process

Burnout isn’t a permanent state but, in order to recover successfully, you will have to learn to be adaptable and be prepared to make changes to how you live and work. Your good qualities are still inside you, it’s just that they’ve become buried underneath all the stress you’ve been living with.

You must take it seriously; trying to keep working through it will only make matters worse – so slow down and take a break. Get some support and share how you are feeling – remember that people often feel flattered that you trust them sufficiently to confide in them. Take time to re-evaluate your goals and priorities, use it as an opportunity to rediscover what makes you happy. Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that things in your life may not have turned out as you expected – you may find that in the long-term that doesn’t have to be a bad thing but in the short term it’s important to recognise what you have lost and grieve for it.

Many case studies have shown that people have come out the other end of burnout syndrome having rediscovered themselves with a better insight and knowledge as to how they tick which can only be positive as they move forward with their lives.


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