“If you get tired, learn to rest — not to quit.”
In 1970, Herbert Freudenberger first described burnout as "A state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life."
Since then, burnout has been modelled and research intensively. The best definition we have found is as follows:
Burnout: a specific type of work related stress that is characterised by:
· Physical and mental exhaustion
· A detachment or cynicism about ones role
· Inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the job
Work related stress has been increasing dramatically year on year and the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact. The highest rates are seen in healthcare professionals, teachers, those in the protective services and those in customer services.
Work related stress costs the economy billions every year in terms of lost work days.
Frustratingly, despite extensive research there is not yet a consensus on how to recognise burnout; there are, however, lots of proposed causes, risk factors and warning signs.
Recognised causes include a lack of control in terms of what our job entails, a shortfall in resources and unclear expectations. Those expectations may be from managers or service users, but often they can be the expectations we place upon ourselves.
A perceived loss of autonomy promotes fearful thoughts which in turn triggers fight-flight reactions and release of adrenaline and stress hormones. Unrealistic expectations and striving for perfection means we will often be disappointed with ourselves, again driving negative cycles of thoughts feelings and behaviours. Perpetually high circulating levels of stress hormones cause sleep issues, headaches, tummy upsets and other physical complaints that enhance our anxieties.
Dysfunctional dynamics in the workplace and a lack of social support are also important. In our book ‘How to Rise’ we discuss how our relationships support us. We are most resilient when we have the ability to make and maintain the connections that we need. Dysfunctional relationships are difficult to maintain and if they are confrontational, we experience fight-flight reactions with each encounter.
A work-life imbalance can also drive burnout. Most of us will have chosen our job. It is hopefully something we are good at, and where we feel valued, however, if we start to focus on work at the expense of homelife we can reach a tipping point that ultimately leads to burnout. Here mindfulness is key. When we work mindfully (paying attention on purpose) we are more focused and effective. We can be mindful of the time and make sure we leave for home at a reasonable time. It is also vital that we engage in our leisure time in a mindful way. Time with family when you are mentally at the office is no time at all.
In addition burnout can be due to specific elements about the job. A job with frequent, stressful or intense situations is draining. Curiously, very monotonous jobs can be equally debilitating requiring a large amount of our energy to maintain focus and appropriate concentration levels.
The consequences of burnout are very concerning
· Excessive stress
· Sadness, anger or irritability
· Escape fantasies
· Alcohol or substance misuse
· Heart disease
· High blood pressure
· Type 2 diabetes
· A reduce immune system
What can we do?
The research says a mix of individual resilience training and an evaluation of the workplace are required.
When we notice signs of burnout in a colleague, we can listen and validate their concerns. Be kind, a large part of burnout involves shame and guilt about not coping. Telling a co-worker or friend to “man-up” or “get a grip” will not help. Neither will gossiping about their difficulties. Offer practical support with tasks and alert managers to review the role. Start a peer support network in your organisation and have more experienced colleague mentor new starters.
When we feel we are burning out it is vital we do the inner work. Self-awareness is so important. Recognising that we are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and behaviours gives us the power to choose how we want to respond in any situation – with an automatic fight-flight reaction or a conscious positive response.
Meditation, mindfulness and CBT have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of burnout. Regular physical activity, good sleep also help.
Burnout feels like the end of a career but this is not the case. Instead see it as opportunity to redress your work-life balance and learn some new resilience tools and techniques.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for bespoke burnout prevention training for your organisation