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The symptoms of burnout

People throw the word around a lot. Maybe they’re feeling burnt out, or maybe they know someone else who is. But is “burnout” a buzzword or a real problem?

What does burnout actually mean?

“Burnout really is a response to stress. It’s a response to frustration. It’s a response to the demand that an individual may make upon themselves in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.”

- Herbert Freudenberger in a 1981 NPR broadcast of “All Things Considered.”

While there is recognition by many organizations at a high level that burnout is a problem that needs to be dealt with, the majority of those organizations have no plans or support processes in place to provide a safe way for employees to deal with this issue. In many cases organizations even lack the insight to understand that burnout often stems from systemic issues within the workplace, and that fixing those issues requires more than surface-level solutions.

These issues that contribute to burnout often stem from the fact that organizations are in a productivity crunch. There is a demand to do more with less. Make more money, create more widgets, treat more patients, all with fewer resources – whether human or otherwise. At the right level, the stress of this system is not necessarily a bad thing and can even motivate a team to excel. However, when the pressure to perform or meet expectations becomes overwhelming, the desired productivity results start to falter, making success for that same organization difficult.

Burnout is not the result of one stressful incident, rather it is the result of cumulative stress. It is much like boiling a frog: it’s hard to recognize the heat being turned up until it is too late.

So what are the symptoms of burnout?

  • Unfulfilled
  • Helpless
  • Unappreciated
  • Unsatisfied
  • Hopeless
  • Resentful
  • Unmotivated
  • Cynical
  • Disinterested

There are three distinct stages of burnout

1. Compulsion – Working Harder

  • One of the risks of burnout is the fact that many people who suffer from it are high-achievers who believe they can do anything. This attitude leads to working longer hours, taking on additional responsibilities, and increased pressures to excel.
  • Starting with excessive ambition, the desire to prove oneself at work turns into determination and compulsion. It becomes important to show not only colleagues but oneself that they can perform exceptionally.
  • This compulsion can result in feeling drained and emotionally exhausted. People experiencing this may feel a lack of ability to cope and a lack of energy.

2. Reduced Accomplishments

  • While burnout can have an impact on productivity and the everyday tasks people engage in, the other impact is they feel negatively about the work they do or even the work they have done in the past. They find it hard to concentrate, and often become pessimistic about their accomplishments.
  • This leads to feelings of low self-awareness, questioning the quality of their work, and strong feelings of doubt.

3. Depersonalization/Cynicism

  • A job may feel increasingly stressful and frustrating. People experiencing this may be cynical about their working conditions and/or colleagues. They may even start to withdraw from colleagues.
  • Some issues that can accompany this stage are a lack of empathy, reduced interpersonal connections, and blame on self or others for situations.

Men and women tend to experience burnout in different ways, and it is important to note that burnout symptoms can have other causes, including mental and psychosomatic illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, or chronic fatigue syndrome.

So, what do you do if you are experiencing burnout?

The first thing is to take a break and check-in with yourself. Spend some time reflecting on the causes of your stress, and make note of any ideas you have about how to counteract these in the short and long term.

leafy background and the word 'breathe'

The Mayo Clinic suggests taking action. Evaluate your options at work first. Finding support may mean talking to a superior or to your team. Look for reasonable solutions and set clear expectations - we all know that there are still things that must get done, but in reality some things can probably wait or be delegated. Remember your mental health is valid!

After addressing the work related causes of burnout, seek out self care. This may mean a relaxing activity like yoga or meditation, regular physical exercise, or even just getting more sleep.

It can be hard to make these changes - burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and it is rarely solved so quickly. Small steps toward a goal are still steps in the right direction, so keep an open mind as you find a new balance, away from burnout.


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