In this article
Two important definitions of burnout are:
- “A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.
- “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” – Herbert J. Freudenberger.
Both of these definitions capture the core of what burnout is; exhaustion and the sense of frustration, fatigue and even disillusionment. Most people experience exhaustion at some point in their lives – working too hard, feeling stressed out, long hours, taking on too much, tight deadlines. Usually you can be fully restored easily by rest and relaxation.
However, burnout is different. It often strikes people who are highly committed to their work, relationships or a cause, with the core part of burnout being total disillusionment in something they deeply believed in. It is said that more cynical people rarely suffer burnout.
What are the Differences Between Exhaustion, Stress and Burnout?
So often people use these terms interchangeably. But there are some very marked differences. Stress and exhaustion (whether physical, mental or emotional) are usually relatively short term. We feel stressed and exhausted when our mental, physical or emotional reserves are pushed past our limit. Stress and exhaustion can be ether positive or negative.
The positive type can be when we exercise or work out, pushing ourselves to our physical limit or slightly beyond, or we rush around to organise an event, trying to do a hundred things at once and then we party through the night enjoying the event to the point of exhaustion. We set ourselves the targets, we are in control, even though we push ourselves hard.
The negative type, on the other hand, can be when we are trying to please a demanding boss or pushing to meet a deadline, we keep going to meet targets set by others, we are not in total control, someone else is doing the demanding.
The effort we exert in these situations, whilst often stressful and exhausting, is usually temporary and may actually help us develop and achieve a desired goal. Once the situation changes, stress often lessens or disappears entirely.
However, stress can affect you over the longer term, especially if you are consistently experiencing these situations. Work-related stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the UK and is caused by a number of factors including workplace bullying and harassment, uneven work-life balance, anxiety about your job or lack of support in your workplace.
MIND offers help and support for people who are concerned about work-related stress.
With burnout, it usually happens over a longer period of time. You might be experiencing it if you start to believe that your work is meaningless or if there is a disconnect between what you are currently doing and what you really want to be doing or when there are changes that have a negative impact on you; for example, you workload increases to levels you cannot cope with, or your new boss is not as supportive as your old boss, or a project you have been working hard on is suddenly shelved or radically changed.
Burnout is a response to extended, excessive stress that leaves you mentally and physically drained, cynical, detached and less effective as a result. You go through “the motions” instead of being truly engaged. Left unresolved, burnout can give way to mental health conditions like clinical depression.
What is Burnout?
“Burnout” isn’t a medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Burnout as:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It is characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
What Causes Burnout?
Job related burnout can result from various factors, including:
- Lack of control – If you do not have the ability to influence decisions that affect your job, such as your schedule, tasks, projects or workload, this could lead to job burnout. So could a lack of the resources or support that you need to do your job, or you try to be everything to everyone.
- Vague job expectations – If you are unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your manager or others expect from you, you are not likely to feel comfortable at work.
- Dysfunctional workplace dynamics – Working in an environment with an office bully, or where you are harassed, where you feel undermined by colleagues or where your manager micromanages your work, can contribute to job stress and in turn possible burnout.
- Extremes of activity – If you are in a job which is monotonous or disorganised, where you need constant energy to remain focused, it can lead to exhaustion and job burnout.
- Lack of social support – Feeling isolated at work and in your personal life, might make you feel more stressed.
- Work-life imbalance – Work that takes up so much of your time and effort that you do not have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, might result in you burning out quickly.
Job burnout risk factors can also include having to work lots of overtime on a regular basis, working in a helping profession, such as health care or teaching, working in high stress environments such as sales, being too much of a perfectionist or being a high-achiever (Type A personality).
What are the Signs?
You may be heading for burnout if:
- Every day is a bad day and nothing makes a day good.
- You have no interest in caring about your work or home life, it all seems like a total waste of energy.
- You are exhausted all the time, even after a night’s sleep.
- You spend the majority of your day on things you find either overwhelming or mind-numbingly boring.
- You are beginning to skip the odd day at work or come in late and leave early more often than usual.
- You feel that nothing you do makes any difference or is appreciated by anyone.
- You are starting to procrastinate and are taking longer to get things done.
Most of us have days when we feel helpless, overloaded or unappreciated. We drag ourselves out of bed and that takes so much effort to do that sometimes we don’t bother. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be heading for burnout or you are already burnt out.
Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first, but become worse as time goes on.
Think of the early symptoms above as warning signs that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major burnout breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.
- You have a negative and critical attitude at work.
- You dread going into work, and want to leave once you are there.
- You have low energy, and little interest at work.
- You have trouble sleeping and lose your appetite.
- You are frequently absent from work.
- You experience a sense of failure and self-doubt.
- You experience physical ailments such as headaches, illness or backache.
- You are easily irritated by colleagues or clients.
- You have thoughts that your work is meaningless or that it does not make a difference.
- You distance yourself emotionally from your colleagues or clients.
- You feel that your work and contributions are not recognised.
- You blame others for your mistakes – it is always someone else’s fault.
- You are thinking of resigning from your job.
- You have a feeling of helplessness, being trapped, and being defeated.
- You have a sense of detachment, feeling alone in the world.
- You are using food, drugs or alcohol to cope.
What are the Effects?
Unmanaged stress can have many consequences on your job – your performance may suffer, you start to make mistakes, there is a knock-on effect to your team.
You may even miss opportunities to progress your career or move to a more interesting role, because you stop looking. It can then start to affect your personal life, your relationships with family and friends and eventually affect your mental and physical health. So, what can you do to stop the slide?
How do you Deal with Burnout?
If you are starting to recognise the warning signs of approaching burnout or you are already past that point and are burnt out, do not try to push through the exhaustion and carry on as you have been doing as this will cause further emotional and physical damage.
Pause and take time out to learn how you can help yourself overcome burnout and feel healthy and positive again.
Beginning with self-awareness, start to recognise your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behaviour. How many of the signs above do you recognise in yourself? How long has this been happening? A day or two? Even longer?
It may be time to seek support. Whether you reach out to colleagues, friends or loved ones, their support and assistance might help you cope.
It’s not uncommon to withdraw from colleagues, friends and family when you feel burnt out but there are probably people in your life who will want to help; they may even have experienced something similar themselves. No matter how much other people care about you, they can’t always understand what you are going through unless you tell them.
Talk to your line manager and explain how you are feeling. Ask for support if you need it or see if they are willing to let you have more control over your tasks, projects or deadlines, giving you autonomy and control. Perhaps they could introduce more variety into your job or help you to learn a new skill that is more stimulating.
If you are not comfortable talking to people that you know, do you have access to an employee assistance programme? Take advantage of their relevant services. You can also speak to your GP or ring the NHS on 111.
Other support and advice agencies include:
Start to look after yourself physically, emotionally and mentally.
Try a little gentle exercise, walking or perhaps a bike ride, nothing competitive. Relaxing activities such as yoga or meditation help relieve stress.
Deep breathing techniques can also help. Try mindfulness, the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgement. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgement. Take time out and do something for yourself.
Try to regulate your sleep pattern. Take a warm bath (not too hot) as this will help your body reach a temperature that is ideal for rest. Listening to relaxation apps or podcasts with carefully narrated scripts and gentle hypnotic music and sound effects can also relax you.
Take your holiday allowance. You don’t have to go away to take time out. A few days away from the job doing something stimulating can refresh your body and mind.
Even if you have lost your appetite, try healthy “comfort” food such as porridge. Avoid processed, caffeinated or sugary foods as these can make stress levels worse. Give yourself a treat – dark chocolate can boost levels of serotonin, the key hormone that stabilises our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables your brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating and digestion. Other ways of boosting serotonin include bright natural light and exercise, so take your physical activity outside, perhaps weeding the garden or washing the windows.
At work, try making lists, get yourself more organised and work through the most important items first. Recognise that you can’t always do everything and may need to ask for some assistance. Having a list is also useful to show your manager you are coping with too many things. If it is the job that’s causing the issue and you can not do anything to change the situation, is this the time to look elsewhere for something more fulfilling?
Write down the things that are important to you about your working life, such as salary level, interesting work, variety, doing something meaningful etc. and put them into a priority list. For your peace of mind, what are the must-haves and what is unnecessary? This may help you to change direction and leave a stressful situation behind before it leaves you behind.
How Can I Help Someone I Know?
Often even our closest friends and family don’t tell us that they are struggling, or they haven’t really recognised the issue themselves, but you may have noticed that everything is not alright.
Have a chat, ask them how things are going, how they are feeling. They may brush it off saying something like, “oh you know, busy as usual” or “let’s not talk about work”. Just ask “is there anything I can do to help?” Don’t just take over; it is possible that lack of control is causing the problem so don’t add to it. A simple “I’m here if you need anything” may be the lead-in they need. Or just make them laugh, take their mind off their pressures for a while, giving them space to think clearly.