Updated: Jan 29
What actually is burnout?
There are many definitions of burnout, such as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress”. Or “An emotional condition marked by tiredness, loss of interest, or frustration that interferes with job performance”. In 2019, burnout was recognised by the world Health Organisation (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon. Burnout is actually a chronic workplace crisis.
The overarching theme with burnout is excessive or prolonged stresses which can negatively impact on ones ability to, and interest in, work tasks. There are many symptoms of burnout. According to Maslech et al., (2001) there are three main symptoms of burnout:
1. Exhaustion – Feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion. It is not just feeling tired, that exhaustion is to the point where it cannot be remedied by relaxing in the evenings or switching off at the weekend.
2. Cynicism - Becoming cynical about things. It might be that you lose your interest and commitment to things,you might have no ambition or desire to do anything. It can make you feel negative towards your job.
3. Low self-efficacy – Having low belief about your ability to complete a particular task.
The difference between stress and burnout
Burnout if often stigmatised and misunderstood. It helps to understand that stress and burnout are not the same thing and you cannot cure burnout by taking an extended vacation or slowing down. Burnout is a totally different state of mind. Under stress you might struggle to cope with pressures, but once burnout takes hold you’re completely out of gas and you’ve given up all hope. It is more than just fatigue. Life can start to lose its meaning and you lose hopefulness, those small tasks feel like an absolute mountain. Your motivation completely dries up. If you ignore the signs of burnout, it could cause physical and mental ill health. Likewise, if you ignore your signs of stress it could lead to burnout.
It can be difficult to anticipate when burnout will strike. We often don’t notice until it’s too late. I think a key indicator that differentiates stress and burnout is that stress is most commonly linked to anxiety. The fear of not knowing what's to come. Whereas, burnout is very closely tied to depression. That feeling of emptiness, loneliness and darkness. You don’t just start to feel exhausted, cynical, and ineffective overnight. Burnout is the result of compounding issues until you reach a breaking point. But what causes you to go over the edge?
What are the causes of burnout?
In order to be able to avoid burnout we need to be aware of the causes. It will be very similar to the things that cause you stress as burnout is all of these things magnified and intensified. We all deal with moments of stress in our lives. And a high-stress job doesn’t always lead to burnout. Here are some of the common risks, especially in the workplace, that are associated with causing burnout:
• Unreasonable time pressures. How often do you find yourself saying, “There’s just not enough hours in the day.” Do you have enough time to do the work expected of you? Unfortunately for many people, a lack of time is the main source of burnout. Some studies show that employees spend up to 80% of their day in meetings, on the phone or responding to emails, this leaves very limited time to actually complete the work that needs doing.
• Lack of support from managers. Do you get the support you need each day to complete your work and feel accomplished? An unsupportive manager can leave you feeling frustrated, cynical and disconnected. According to a 2018 report by Gallup, workers who feel strongly supported by their managers are 70% less likely to experience burnout.
• Unclear expectations. Are you clear about your priorities and responsibilities? When every day feels like you’re chasing a moving target, it’s easy to become exhausted and upset. Unfortunately, only 60% of workers say they clearly know what’s expected of them each day.
• Unrealistic workloads. Is your plate full or overflowing? Even the best employees will suffer when their workload becomes unmanageable. And often the most capable employees are the ones given too much work. Whether it’s your boss throwing work your way or you taking on too much, a never ending to-do list will make the bestemployees feel hopeless.
• Poor time management. Do you know how to properly manage your time? When you can’t manage your own day you become more vulnerable to overwork, stress, and burnout.
• Feeling like you have little or no control over your work and your workload. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and apprehension.
• Lack of boundaries around work. Can you switch off at the end of the day? Disconnecting from work is vital for our wellbeing, and has been linked to lower rates of burnout, less fatigue and greater work/ life satisfaction.
• Lack of recognition or reward for good work. A well done, or a thank you goes a long way.
• Feeling isolated. loneliness can have a negative impact on our mental health and can lead to burnout. With an increasing number of people working from home it is so important that we are still connecting with our colleagues.
• Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging.
Personality traits can contribute to burnout
• Having perfectionist tendencies. That feeling that nothing is ever good enough.
• Having a pessimistic view of yourself. That feeling thatyou will never be good enough, lack of confidence and self esteem.
• The need to be in control. If you are reluctant to delegate to others. Perhaps having that mantra of if you want a job done well, do it yourself – that sort of attitude.
Lifestyle causes of burnout
• Working too much, without enough time for socialising or relaxing.
• A Lack of close, supportive relationships. Whether it be your partner, friends or close family members.
• Taking on too many responsibilities around the house or socially. Meaning not enough ‘you’ time.
• Not prioritising your health. Not getting enough good quality sleep, our lifestyle habits can affect this. We may drink, smoke, eat unhealthily, or do very little exercise. These are things we do have some control over and should make the time and effort for.
It is important to remember we do not have control over all these things. Instead, it is important that we focus on what we do have control over.
So how can we avoid burnout?
The Three Rs Method is used the prevent and deal with burnout. This includes recognise, reverse and resilience. “The three Rs technique helps you deal with stress responses as they arrive”.
The first step of the three R method is being able to recognise when you are stressed. It is completely normal to experience stress, by recognising your stress you can then figure out what’s triggering that stress and do something about it.
This prevents the stress from building up and becoming overwhelming, which could lead to burnout. To do this we need to be more self-aware. Think about the ‘why’. Why do I respond this way to certain situations? What is it that’s causing me to feel this way? Mastering self awareness can be a powerful tool. The earlier you recognise, the quicker you can intervene and reverse any damage that’s been done.
If you haven’t been able to recognise your stress and deal with it before it has become a bigger issue, the next step is to try to reverse the damage that has been done by removing that stress.
Now, this is obviously easier said than done. But ask yourself “what can you do to stop yourself feeling stressed and prevent things from spiralling out of control?”. This is the time to speak up and get some support.
The third R is resilience. Resilience isn’t a trait that you are either born with or without, it is something we can all learn and develop. We should all be trying to build up our resilience to stress.
Being resilient can help us to manage our stress better and therefore reduce the risk of burnout. This is because when we are resilient we are better able to cope with stress.
It is never too late to start to build on your resilience, you can start at any time in your life. There are lots of ways to boost our resilience. To be resilient you need to take care of your physical and emotional wellbeing.
This includes everything from getting enough sleep to eating well and exercising regularly. By getting enough rest, fuelling your body with good foods and getting in some physical activity you will be better able to deal with what life throws at you. It can also help to work on our mindset, you can do this by challenging negative/ unhelpful thoughts. It is also important to ensure you have a strong support network. Whether its family, friends or colleagues, being able to reach out and get support during the tough times is important for building resilience.
Mental health awareness is improving in workplaces. But it is time employers made more effort to raise awareness and preventative mechanisms for burnout.
This could be done by educating employees about how to recognise the signs and symptoms of burnout and how to manage stress. Also, communicating the support that is available for employees.
If you feel you are on the road to burnout make sure you speak up and get some support.