Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. 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.
The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life—including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu. Because of its many consequences, it’s important to deal with burnout right away.
Workplace ‘burn-out’ has become such a serious health issue in the modern age, it’s now been reclassified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational syndrome’.
Some of the signs and symptoms that an employee experiencing burnout may exhibit include:
Physical signs and symptoms of burnout
Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout
Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout
Severe burnout can also result in:
- Self-medication with alcohol and other substances
- Sarcasm and negativity
- Debilitating self-doubt
Left unaddressed, burnout may result in a number of outcomes including:
- Poor physical health
- Clinical depression
- Reduced job satisfaction
- Decreased productivity
- Increased absenteeism
- Increased risk of accidents
- Poor workplace morale
- Communication breakdown
- Increased turnover
Work-related burnout can be triggered by exposure to multiple and continuing work stressors. While such stressors may differ across occupations, they relate to the demanding and unrelenting nature of a job, combined with a toxic mix of lack of resources and support.
Burnout can also be triggered by certain personality traits. For instance, research has linked burnout to a person’s evaluation of themselves and their abilities, a trait known as core self-evaluation.
Low core self-evaluation is when someone has negative views about their own skills and ability to control situations. People with low core self-evaluation are susceptible to burnout as they likely view difficult work assignments as threatening or overwhelming, rather than achievable challenges.
Perfectionists are also at greater risk of burnout, as they tend to set excessively high performance standards they inevitably fail to meet, thus diminishing their sense of personal accomplishment.
There are three different types of burnout:
1. Overload burnout
With overload burnout, people work harder and ever-more frantically in search of success. They are willing to risk their health and personal life in pursuit of their ambition. They cope by complaining.
2. Under-challenge burnout
Signs of under-challenge burnout include not feeling appreciated, boredom, and a lack of learning opportunities. Because these people find no passion or enjoyment in their work, they cope by distancing themselves from their job. This indifference leads to cynicism, avoidance of responsibility, and overall disengagement.
3. Neglect burnout
This subtype of burnout results from feeling helpless at work. People may feel incompetent or unable to keep up with the demands of their job. These employees tend to be passive and unmotivate
Dealing with burnout requires the “Three R” approach:
Recognise – Watch for the warning signs of burnout
Reverse – Undo the damage by seeking support and managing stress
Resilience – Build your resilience to stress by taking care of your physical and emotional health
Stress may be unavoidable, but burnout is preventable. Following these steps may help you thwart stress from getting the best of you:
Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it can also give us an emotional boost.
Stretched for time? You don’t need to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Mini-workouts and short walks are convenient ways to make exercise a daily habit.
Eat a balanced diet
Eating a healthy diet filled with omega-3 fatty acids can be a natural antidepressant. Adding foods rich in omega-3s like flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fish may help give your mood a boost.
Practice good sleep habits
Our bodies need time to rest and reset, which is why healthy sleep habits are essential for our well-being.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, avoiding caffeine before bedtime, establishing a relaxing bedtime ritual, and banning smartphones from the bedroom can help promote sound sleep hygiene.
Ask for help
During stressful times, it’s important to reach out for help. If asking for assistance feels difficult, consider developing a self-care “check-in” with close friends and family members so that you can take care of each other during trying times.
A number of treatment approaches have been found to effectively manage the burnout response. These include cognitive behavioural stress management, stress inoculation training, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and a range of relaxation-based approaches.7-11
Cognitive Behavioural Stress Management
Cognitive behavioural stress management (CBSM) includes a range of techniques such as relaxation, communication skills training, problem-solving, time management and strategies to address unhelpful thinking that can contribute to burnout.
Stress inoculation training
Stress inoculation training (SIT) teaches people specific skills to handle stress more effectively.12 SIT educates the person about stress and how unhelpful coping strategies or self-talk can contribute to stress. The person is also taught to tell the difference between what can be changed and what is beyond their control, so they can direct their energies to take more constructive action.
The person then learns a range of coping skills (e.g., relaxation, problem solving, and communication skills) designed to reduce anxiety and increase confidence. These coping skills are then practiced while rehearsing stressful situations.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction
Mindfulness-based approaches have been found to effectively reduce stress by drawing the person’s focus to the immediate moment, free from the distraction of real and imagined worries.10
There are a variety of relaxation-based approaches that have been found to decrease stress, particularly when practised on a regular basis.7
The goal of relaxation skills training is to achieve deep relaxation and reduce stress by teaching the body to respond to simple verbal cues (e.g., I feel warm, heavy and relaxed) and combining this with calming, regularly paced, deep breathing. This is done in a quiet place, free from distraction, where the person can sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxed position.
- American Psychological Association (2018). The road to resilience. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
- Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2016). Latent burnout profiles: A new approach to understanding the burnout experience. Burnout Research, 3, 89-100. doi.org/10.1016/j.burn.2016.09.001
- Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review ofPsychology, 52, 397-422.
If you feel that your experience of burnout is impacting on your ability to enjoy life, a Life Psychologist may be able to help.
- Life Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range of mental health concerns, including burnout.
- A Life Psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your burnout and the most effective ways to address it using techniques based on best available research.
- Life Psychologists usually see clients individually, but can also include family members to support treatment where appropriate.
A medical check-up with a GP might also be helpful to see if there is an underlying health issue.