What is burnout? How could it be affecting your life? Is it your fault?

The term ‘burnout’ is commonly used, but what are we actually talking about? Are we all even talking about the same thing? Understanding what burnout means is crucial to making an accurate assessment of what the issues are you’re facing, and how they are best addressed. If the diagnosis is incorrect, you’ll end up wasting resources trying to solve the wrong problem. So let’s talk about what burnout is.

Burnout describes a state of being exhausted, overwhelmed, and struggling to cope. It describes a profound fatigue and depletion that leads to a combination of emotional and physical symptoms, disrupted relationships, and a damaged career. It’s often seen when people are exposed to severe stress over a prolonged period. There is a mismatch between the resources that person has, and what they are trying to do. Burnout often affects intelligent, resilient, resourceful, and driven people, who manage to maintain a functional facade and battle on for quite some time. But eventually the defences collapse, and it can no longer be ignored.

How does burnout affect you?

Burnout frequently has a serious impact upon professional capacity: reduced job satisfaction, reduced productivity, increased conflict and aggression with colleagues, and eventually resignation.

The exhaustion and fatigue component of burnout is often associated with stress-related symptoms, including headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and sleep disturbance.

Symptoms of burnout can also have a huge impact upon personal lives. Irritability, aggression, and social withdrawal affect relationships with friends and family, which further increases isolation. Fatigue reduces capacity to participate in commitments and activities outside of work, which contributes to withdrawal and loss of a sense of effectiveness and achievement.

Who gets burnt out?

When burnout was first described in the 1970’s, it was applied to those working in caring professions, such as nurses and doctors. But it was soon recognised that the same syndrome could occur in a multitude of workplace contexts. More recently, it has been acknowledged that burnout can occur within any role, whether it be parenting, caring for people with disabilities or the elderly, students, or volunteers.

How do you know if it’s burnout, or something else?

If you’re confused about exactly how to know whether you or someone else is burnt-out, it’s hardly surprising: there is still no universally agreed-upon definition or mechanism for diagnosis. This can make the research a little confusing and challenging to interpret. But regardless of the inconsistencies, burnout is a helpful description of a common experience. When someone is burnt-out, you can usually identify symptoms that relate to three key areas: exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Because burnout doesn’t have a strict set of criteria, it’s vital to exclude other mental or physical illnesses in individuals who appear burnt-out. Symptoms of burnout overlap with many other conditions, including sleep disorders, depression, endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, cancer, and many more. It is essential that a doctor is involved in a comprehensive assessment prior to diagnosis and treatment for burnout.

Is burnout your fault?

A really important aspect of burnout to discuss is: who’s fault is it? There has been a concerning trend for workplaces to attribute blame to individuals who experience burnout. Employees are sometimes labelled as weak, or lacking in resilience. The solution is proposed to be self-care and resilience-boosting strategies for the individual. There is often no acknowledgement that it is organisations and workplaces who have imposed an unsafe work environment, or expectations beyond what can reasonably be expected.

Burnout absolutely does not reflect upon the strength and resilience of an individual, and it is not their fault. Anyone will burn out if they are placed in a prolonged situation in which the demands put upon them exceed the resources they have available to them. The specific situations which will cause this vary for everyone.

This does not mean that individual self-care and specific techniques and strategies are not helpful for managing burnout. In fact, I would argue that they are essential in overcoming burnout. But the important point is that although we need to support individuals to recover, we must not attribute blame to them for the fact that they burnt-out in the first place.

What do you do if you suspect burnout?

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, is burnt-out, the important thing to know is that burnout describes a common and destructive emotional state that must be taken seriously. It needs to be addressed as early as possible to reduce its impact upon career, health, and family life.

The first step is to see a doctor, to ensure the correct diagnosis. There are ways to effectively overcome burnout, and a management plan should be tailored to the patient’s unique situation.

Even better than burnout management, it is possible to prevent burnout by addressing societal, institutional and organisational factors that contribute to it. Share this article within your circles, and get people thinking about how they can prevent or identify burnout. If you suspect one of your friends or colleagues are burnt-out, try gently approaching them about it. Speak to your employer about what measures they have to help reduce the chance of their employees burning out. If your workplace doesn’t take care of employee mental health, consider whether there is a way that you can stand up for this issue, or help to create change.

The solution to this problem begins with small steps from all of us.

If you’d like assistance managing burnout, find out how The Burnout Project can help.

Disclaimer: All advice provided through this website is intended as general advice, and not specific advice to any individual. Every individual is unique and has different needs, so please seek advice from your own health professional for advice tailored to your specific situation. I aim to provide high quality information based upon current research, guidelines and accepted practice. The possibility of error or omission remains, and I am not liable (including liability by reason of negligence) to the users for any loss, damage, cost or expense incurred or arising by reason of any person using or relying on the information and whether caused by reason of error, negligent act, omission or misrepresentation in the information presented or otherwise.


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