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Burnout - What it is, and how to know if you've got there.

The term 'Burnout' is a relatively new term - originally coined in 1974, by a gentleman named Herbert Freudenberger. He defined it as "the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results."

To put in in layman's terms - if you're exhausted, you hate your job, and you start to feel less capable doing your work, you are displaying symptoms of burnout.

The stress that usually causes burnout comes directly from work, but often times can be affected by personality traits such as pessimism or perfectionism. However, most people spend their waking hours working - and if you hate your job and get no satisfaction from going there, dreading to go in to work every day, you are going to end up taking a serious toll on your life.

Signs and Symptoms

While Burnout isn't a diagnosable psychological disorder, that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taken seriously when someone is displaying classic characteristics/behaviors such as:

  • Physical Symptoms: Chronic stress can lead to physical stress, like headaches, stomachaches, and intestinal issues.

  • Emotional Exhaustion: Burnout causes people to feel drained, unable to handle their day to day tasks, and overall extremely tired - this often causes them to lack the energy to get their work done.

  • Alienation from work-related activities: People experiencing burnout will see their jobs as extremely stressful and frustrating. They can become cynical about their working conditions, as well as their coworkers. They may also emotionally distance themselves and begin to display a numbness at work.

  • Reduced performance: Burnout directly affects many day to day tasks at work - or in the home if the burnout is produced by the necessary care of a loved one within the home. Tasks that are important get pushed to the wayside, with the individuals often feeling negative about their tasks and struggling with concentration and creativity.

Burnout shares some similar symptoms with other common mental health disorders, such as depression. Individuals suffering from depression often experience negative feelings and thoughts about all aspects of life, not just work. Depression symptoms can also include loss of interest, feeling hopelessness, and cognitive and physical symptoms as well as thoughts of suicide. Because so many of the symptoms are similar, individuals who suffer from burnout are at a higher risk of developing depression.

Risk Factors

Just because someone works a stressful job, doesn't mean they're going to experience burnout. Often times with proper stress management, individuals won't have any negative effects. However, there are some people who are naturally at a higher risk than others. Certain characteristics of personality, or lifestyle choices, can lead to the risk increasing:

  1. Unreasonable time pressure: Employees who say that they have enough time to complete their work are 70% less likely to experience high burnout. Individuals who are not capable of gaining more time to complete projects, such as paramedics and firefighters, are at a higher risk of burnout.

  2. Lack of communication and support from management: Manager support offers a psychological buffer against stress. Employees who feel strongly connected and supported by their management staff at 70% less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.

  3. Unmanageable workload: When a workload feels unmanageable for an employee, even the most optimistic person will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly cause people to become burned out.

  4. Lack of role clarity: Only 60% of workers know what is expected of them in terms of a job description and daily expectations. When you are unsure of what to expect at work, you become exhausted by simply trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing.

  5. Unfair treatment: Employees who feel like they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3x more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment can be numerous things, such as unfair compensation, favoritism, and coworker mistreatment.

Prevention and Treatment

Although the term 'burnout' makes it sound like it's a permanent condition, it's completely reversible. Often times, you need to make changes in your work environment to help erase the sensation of burnout creeping in. Discussing your situation with the HR department, or talking to a supervisor about your feelings, could be helpful if you are in a work environment where your management team will help create a healthier work environment. In some instances, a change of position or a new job all-together can be the answer as well.

It can also be a really good idea to figure out how to develop clear and helpful strategies for you to manage your stress. Things such as healthy eating habits, self-case strategies, getting good exercise and plenty of sleep, can assist in reducing the effects of a high-stress job.

A vacation could potentially offer some relief, but a week away from the office won't be a long enough break to end your burnout. Regularly scheduled breaks from work, along with daily renewal exercises, can be the key ingredient to helping you combat burnout. Never forget that a mental health professional will always be able to assist you in finding the right path for your mental health needs!


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