What is Burnout?

While talking with a colleague recently, I was asked this question – and I realised that the word ‘burnout was used a lot, and the signs of severe burnout, the point where it hits you in the face, is easily recognisable. However, burnout is something that has to be recognized before it reaches this stage, and there are many people who seem to be functioning reasonably well, and yet, do have many of the symptoms of burnout, which they put down to stress.

There is a big difference between stress and burnout. The main difference is that a person under stress will feel better when the stress is relieved, whereas a burnout person has no hope that things will be any better, even if the current stresses are relieved. Burnout is the result of too much stress, often repeated, without enough recovery in between, over a period of time.

The term was first used by Freudenberger, who described it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” This is characterised by exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy.

Causes of Burnout: There are many factors that lead to burnout. While most cases occur due to stressful work environment, burnout can occur in a stay-at-home parent, or in a person working two or more jobs to make ends meet, without any vacation or leisure. It can also occur in the obsessive compulsive person who expects too much of himself- and everybody else!

Burnout can thus be due to a combination of work environment and responsibilities, lifestyle, and personality traits. Some of the factors are as follows:

Work Conditions: (anybody in the healthcare field know what these are like)!

  • Overly demanding job, with high expectations
  • Working in a chaotic or high pressure environment
  • Feeling a lack or loss of control over the work
  • Lack of recognition or reward for good work

Lifestyle Factors:

  • Too much work, no time for relaxation or socialization
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Too many responsibilities
  • Being too many things to too many people
  • Lack of or inadequate support

Personality Traits:

  • Perfectionistic tendencies – expecting too much from self and others
  • Pessimistic attitudes – related to self and the world
  • High-achieving, Type A Personalities
  • Need to be in control – reluctance to delegate

Burnout is something that happens over a period of time, and can be prevented, if the symptoms and signs can be recognized early enough. It is important to be vigilant and pick up these signs, many of which may be subtle.

The symptoms and signs may be categorised as follows:

Physical:

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional:

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioural:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

In the next post, I will be discussing methods of avoiding burnout, as well as measures to manage burnout, once it has occurred.

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