What Is Burnout and How to Get Help
March 22, 2022
If you are reading this, you have most likely experienced burnout at some stage or another. Maybe you are currently feeling burnt out or experience it frequently. You might be unsure. Wherever you are, learning what burnout is and reflecting over your personal red flags to prepare for the potential experience of it, is critical for your overall wellness and workplace health.
Burnout is not a simple, straightforward or linear process. It was an ambiguous term used pre-COVID, but now two years into a global pandemic, we hear the word all the time. Unfortunately, there is a shocking gap between the media coverage and scientific data, and how burnout is used colloquially. You may have denied or even convinced yourself that you could not possibly be burnt out due to all the aforementioned factors. Or you may feel you are so deep into burnout that a return feels unlikely, and you may not understand why or know the depths of those feelings? How could this be?
The word alone – burnout – begs for a certain threshold where we feel compelled to earn the title or feeling of being burned out. We all seem to have an intuitive notion or sense about what it means and know how it feels in our body, but we are never sure if we ever actually meet that criterion. Yet it seems to comprise of the tiredness, stress and dissatisfaction that we feel these days when interacting with people at work. And as the world moves into its third year of the COVID pandemic, amidst all our other individual stressors, rates of burnout are at their highest; and only growing.
What we know is that burnout is real – and a serious, rising mental health problem.
Ultimately, burnout is common yet unfortunately ubiquitous. The following will not only define burnout but provide some helpful tips to prepare for and cope with the experience of burning out.
What is Burnout?
Coined in 1975 by H. Freudenberger, the World Health Organization (WHO) breaks burnout syndrome down into three categories.
We have all experienced being tired and having our energy drained. But how can we be emotionally exhausted? When our emotional resources are worn-out and we get stuck in an emotion, we feel unable to give ourselves at a psychological level. At times we are resilient and focus on parts of our life that bring us energy, but over time this becomes harder and harder to sustain. Your cup becomes completely empty.
No matter how long one works in their job, it is common to lose interest or feel indifferent toward your work. This component of burnout takes the concept of disinterest a bit further though, referring to a prolonged negativity toward your job. You start to feel distant from your work and your attitude is affected.
Decreased Professional Efficacy
The general concept of work can be distilled down to a series of tasks, accompanied by goals, that we consistently try to complete – individually or organizationally. We meet with co-workers to collaborate and/or have assessments conducted by our leaders to determine our progress and success. These tasks differ in length and importance but when our sense of purpose reduces, so does our professional efficacy. We begin to lose motivation and compassion in our tasks, losing a piece of our worth and sense of accomplishment. We do not think anything we do at work makes any difference. You may not even recognize yourself and others may remark how out of character you are being, but you are not sure how to change it.
Distilled and defined into these three groups, the WHO determines burnout as workplace stress that is not successfully managed. Therefore, anyone exposed to chronically, stressful conditions that produces an elevated regularity of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a lowered sense of efficacy can experience burnout. All professions induce burnout, and anyone is at risk of burnout, though there are workplaces that put employees at a higher risk than other workplaces.
Anyone can experience burnout.
Burnout is not simply a phase someone experiences before quitting. It is a stress response to chronic stressors on the job. This syndrome can occur anywhere on your professional track, regardless of how long you have been working at your job and does not have to be a full-blown crisis. Burnout can be experienced day-to-day, week-to-week or month-to-month and looks different for everyone. One’s threshold is completely subjective as well as their ability to cope with and identify what they need to do to reduce burnout.
Facts About Burnout
- Job-related stress has led to a loss of 550 million workdays each year
- Women are more likely to experience burnout than men
- Individual stressors – such as having young children, socioeconomic status, income level, type of job and work habits – place one at a higher risk of going through burnout
- According to a 2020 Gallup survey, the United States and Canada had some of the highest levels of burnout
- COVID has severely heightened burnout rates, specifically among work-from-home positions
- Health care, teaching and social work professions place employees at a higher risk of burnout
Red Flags: How Do I Know if I Am Burning Out or Burnt Out?
A signal to the body and to the workplace, burnout communicates that something is not going well. It is important to check in with yourself on a consistent basis to assess how you are feeling about work. Again, burnout is when someone experiences emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and lowered professional efficacy at a high frequency. Next we will give examples of red flag behaviors, also known as symptoms, that pertain to the three burnout components.
Symptoms of Burnout
- Irritability toward clients or co-workers or patients
- Loss of motivation
- Compassion fatigue
- Mental distance from the job
- Depleted sense of empathy
- Cynical attitude
- Interactions with colleagues, clients, patients, etc. that shift away from one’s natural behavior and morph into impersonal, hostile exchanges
- Dehumanize those around you
- A bare minimum work ethic
- Unfavorable sense of self
- Lack motivation
- Believe your work does not matter
- Work feels ineffective and your task buy-in decreases
- Sense of purpose and pride in your position wanes
- Little sense of personal achievement
This is not an exhaustive list of burnout symptoms by any means. If you are experiencing many of these red flags, within all three components, for an extended period, it would be wise to consider if you are burnt out.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine Burnout
You can also ask yourself the following questions about your current work experience and assess how or if your answers change over time:
- Am I becoming cynical with my work?
- Am I exhausted and feeling stressed at work, and unable to recoup on my days off?
- Am I beginning to get irritable or sour on the job?
- Do I hate my position or resent my clients/customers/patients to the point that I no longer want to be there?
- Am I stuck?
- How do I feel about how well I am doing at my job?
How Do I Prevent or Reduce Burnout?
Experiencing these red flags does not automatically equate to burnout; rather they suggest a warning and need for change. Emotional exhaustion is therefore imperative to differentiate from the other two components in this section, because getting stuck in an emotion is what becomes so taxing on the individual. To explain, experiencing emotion can often be compared to a tunnel and when we get stuck in an emotional tunnel without processing the emotion, we become exhausted. Heavier emotions such as grief, rage, helplessness and despair are some of the more common emotions to get stuck in. And these emotions can be felt in the workplace.
Similar to emotions, the stress cycle is caused by work stressors but is often not completed because we do not address the root of the stress. Fortunately, external motivations have been found to be the most effective methods to move through the emotional tunnel and stress cycle.
There are a myriad of ways to prevent or cope with burnout and become unstuck. Some of these strategies are possible on an individual level and others require organizational change. Most of the time, burnout is a problem both individually and organizationally. Assessing both the individual and the work environment is the best way to combat burnout. Not every tactic listed below is one-size-fits-all, so trial-and-error is the suggested approach.
How to Stop Burnout (on a Personal Level)
- Acknowledge how you are feeling and process it. This could be through journaling, therapy or sharing with an accountability partner. Many mental health professionals have seen a lot of success in the buddy system.
- Be creative and express yourself. Do art or poetry, begin writing or playing music.
- Take breaks frequently. Walk around the street or grab a glass of tea through the day so that you move away from your desk and get your blood flowing.
- Strive to have a work-life balance. Schedule time off and honor your boundaries of the workday.
- Physical activity. Getting outside and being active has proven to be the most efficient way to complete one’s stress cycle.
- Take slow, deep breaths to downregulate the stress response. Square breathing or slowly counting to eight are two suggested breathing techniques.
- Positive social interactions. Strive to laugh or foster friendly interactions at work to cultivate the feeling of safety in the workplace.
- Challenge your intrusive thoughts by processing and questioning them as they surface and consider if that is how you have always felt. Remind yourself that you have felt differently before that moment and that the emotion will pass.
- Mental Health Digital Apps that encourage mindfulness or meditation. These can be found online and are easily downloadable.
- Self-Care Check-ins. Check in with how you are taking care of yourself and if you are doing things on your days off that fill your emotional cup.
How to Stop Burnout (as an Organization)
- Alter your work environment by talking with your team about positive work relationships and team culture.
- According to senior HR leaders in an American Psychological Association study, granting flexible work hours was the most effective way to avoid burnout.
- Conducting routine assessments around burnout and compassion fatigue and helping institutions check their employees’ well-being and health.
- Ensure that you are hiring people with a shared vision and value to your team. Checking in periodically to see if they still align is a helpful way to measure team buy-in and burnout.
There are so many ways to complete the stress cycle and work through your emotional tunnel. Taking notice of early warning signs before they develop into potential problems is worthwhile to prevent burnout, especially as demands and stress increase throughout the pandemic. Moreover, it is unrealistic to believe that burnout does not exist but acknowledging and trying different strategies to see what works for you to reduce burnout, is a great start.
Conclusion: Burnout Awareness
Ultimately, burnout is not just when someone works too long or too hard but is a stress response to a high frequency of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and depleted professional efficacy. There are a variety of red flags to help someone gauge if burnout is forthcoming but preventing and reducing those symptoms is best done at both an individual and organizational level.
As a society, it is our duty to take a harder look at the causes and interventions necessary to combat burnout, or else the problem will only continue to increase at the detriment of our community’s mental health.
- "Burnout: The Secret of Unlocking the Stress Cycle"
- "Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life"
- "The Weariness of the Self"
- "Body Keeps the Score"
- "Not Working: Why We Have to Stop"
- "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less"
- "Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving"
- "Atomic Habits"
- Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), based on profession
- Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OBI)
- Utrecht Burnout Scale
- Professional Fulfillment Index (PFI), free by emailing the Stanford Wellness Center
- Quick Burnout Assessment Tool, by Stanford Social Innovation Review
- Compassion Fatigue Survey
- Non-proprietary Single Item, for health care practitioners