Burnout: Are You Extinguishing Your Fire?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
In the times of technological development, infinite possibilities, and fast-paced lifestyle, burnout is more relevant than ever. It is even more common than it is generally believed, since there are many people that suffer from burnout but are unaware of it, and keep going and going until more severe health implications make their appearance.
We all know the term, but do we really know what burnout is, what are its characteristics to recognize, and what are the factors contributing to it?
What is Burnout?
Burnout is basically when you reach a point of no return at work, and you feel you’re cracking under pressure. You don’t have anything else to give, your resources are exhausted, and your light is dimmed. Your fire is not burning any longer, it’s extinguished. You are out.
Burnout is defined as a reaction to prolonged or chronic occupational stress, with 3 basic hallmarks:
Exhaustion, Depersonalization, and Reduced Work Performance.
Physical and emotional exhaustion is understandably the most fundamental characteristic of burnout.
If you experience constant fatigue as well as a sense of dread and worry to confront your daily work routine, that can develop into a state of avoidance, this can be a sign of burnout. In burnout, this exhaustion does not seem to dissipate even after taking holidays, unlike normal levels of work stress.
You know you may be coming close to burnout when you feel constantly drained, frustrated and dissatisfied with your work, and exhausted even at the idea of fulfilling your occupational responsibilities.
Problems in relation to sleep may be present as well, and the quality of sleep may not seem satisfactory anymore (i.e. you wake up tired).
People who have burnout start feeling more and more alienated and numb with regards to their job activities. They distance themselves emotionally, since the burden of their work seems overbearing and frustrating.
If you are feeling detached and disconnected from your work and the responsibilities it entails, and you also notice a shift in how cynical, even plain mean at times, you have become with regards to work and your colleagues/clients, the burnout alarm may be ringing for you!
There are certain “personality changes” associated with burnout, for example increased irritability and cynicism towards others in the workplace (both colleagues and clients). This may be evident to others around you as well, like your loved ones at home and your professional contacts.
You feel rather insensitive, agitated and on the edge to explode even at minor comments that wouldn’t annoy you in the past. You get frustrated more easily, you are impatient in your interactions with others, and you feel “moody” and dark. Even if you’re in a good mood when not at work, this always seems to evaporate completely when you’re at work.
3. Reduced Work Performance
Because of feeling exhausted all the time, it is obvious that this will impact your work performance as well. You feel as if you’re working harder and harder, but actually the end result is never as good as expected- something that causes more stress and further feeds the vicious circle.
As performance goes down, so does your confidence in your ability to do your job, and that is accompanied by lower productivity and efficiency overall. You may experience difficulty concentrating and your attention span now seems shorter, as your ability to work focused on a topic is significantly lower.
Other Signs of Burnout
Although the above 3 are necessary, of course there are more consequences and implications for the person who is burnt out.
The emotional exhaustion may cause a feeling of wanting to give up altogether, since you feel both unwilling and unable to put in the necessary effort for your work. You experience a lack of motivation that can be paralyzing.
Many people suffering from burnout take frequent sick leave, not only because they simply feel too exhausted to cope, but because they actually get sick often.
The reason for this is that there is a well-established relationship between our immune system and chronic stress; prolonged stress makes us more susceptible to diseases, because our immune system gets weaker in response to the dysregulation of our stress system.
Physical exhaustion can also manifest with physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach problems, cramps, muscle aches, chronic pain etc.
The above work-related hardships can inevitably backfire to interpersonal relationships. Perhaps one has to work overtime in order to compensate for reduced performance, thus spending less time with their loved ones. This may give the impression that there is decreased investment in interpersonal relationships.
Alternatively, the high levels of stress from work may be transferred at home, by reacting intensely to the ones that are closest to you, who may experience you as a “different person” now. Resentment between partners and subsequent arguments can be a natural result of higher levels of work stress.
The Stress Response
Burnout essentially is the prolonged and repeated activation of the stress response. Since becoming aware of what's happening within our body is important in order to realize the potential effects of stress on our health, below the stress response is briefly explained.
Whenever we encounter a threatening or stressful situation, our internal alarm, called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal System (HPA Axis) is activated.
A series of stress hormones and neurotransmitters, including adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), corticosteroid, cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, are produced and released in our system. The arousal system is activated, causing several other physiological changes described below. This is the well-known Fight or Flight response, where our body is prepared for action.
The stress response actually affects the whole body when activated:
Musculoskeletal System: Your muscles tense
Respiratory System: Hyperventilation- you breathe faster
Cardiovascular System: Increased heart rate and blood pressure
Endocrine System: Adrenal glands produce cortisol and adrenaline, Liver produces more glucose
Gastrointestinal System: During acute stress, your appetite diminishes and digestion is affected as well. As a response to stress, you may eat much less or much more than usual. Your stomach can also be very sensitive to stress.
Nervous System: The Nervous system gets activated first, and further triggers the rest of the body to action. The Fight-or-Flight response is generated by the Nervous System.
Reproductive System: Cortisol affects the biochemical functioning of the male reproductive system. If chronic, testosterone and sperm production can be affected, with erectile dysfunction or impotence as possible consequences. In women, stress affects the menstruation, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause. It can also impact sexual desire in both men and women.
While this is our inbuilt survival mechanism, it is meant as an emergency alarm to help us face danger. When we are faced with chronically stressful situations, the stress system is often and repeatedly activated, thus becoming dysregulated- what can cause severe health implications, such as cardiovascular problems (hypertension, heart attacks, strokes etc.) , endocrine problems, depression, anxiety and many more.
In addition, many people develop unhealthy coping habits as a response to stress, such as smoking, using drugs, unbalanced diet, that can further cause even more health problems.
Contributing Factors to Burnout
Not everyone develops a burnout, but what are the risk factors associated with it?
Stress is the root cause of burnout. Although work stress is susceptible for burnout, high levels of stress stemming from other areas, such as interpersonal relationships, family issues, finances, lifestyle etc., are a risk factor for the development of a burnout.
Your personal life ideally is a safe haven, that you resort to recharge from your professional life. Therefore, when that is not the case, you are bombarded by stress from all possible directions, and it comes without saying that your resilience can then easily be affected.
The busier your life is, the less room for self-care there is. Relevant to the above point, when you are in a state of constant running to meet deadlines and other expectations and at the same time juggle responsibilities from your personal life (e.g. bills, children, etc), you basically don’t have time to take it easy, rest, and invest time to activities that nourish your soul as well.
Balance is key for a healthy mind and body, but also for the maintenance of a resilient attitude when confronted with stressors.
There are several personality traits that are correlated with burnout, such as perfectionism, neuroticism and pessimism.
In a previous blog post, the self-sabotaging detrimental effects of perfectionism were discussed. When you have too high expectations of yourself, you may strain yourself beyond your limits in order to accomplish them, and you don’t want to accept less than perfect results. In maladaptive perfectionism, you feel urged to achieve high-level goals in order to avoid feeling bad about yourself. If you would describe yourself as a workaholic, chances are you are perfectionistic too. You are an addict to your job and probably also great at it. But be aware this can have a heavy toll on you!
Neuroticism is a personality trait that predisposes individuals to many adverse consequences and mental health issues. Individuals scoring high on neuroticism tend to be more anxious, emotionally reactive, moody, and experience worry, fear and depression more often than those who are not neurotic.
Pessimism is the tendency to see the darker side of situations or assume that the worst possible scenario will materialize. Pessimistic individuals may be less flexible in problem solving and generating solutions, and therefore less resilient when confronted with stressful situations.
Job Structure and Professional Environment Issues
The risk of burnout is higher for individuals with:
low recognition and compensation for their performance
unclear requirements and expectations of work
heavy consequences for mistakes
a diminished sense of control with regards to the job activities
In other words, if you feel you often have to work overtime or have a long list of job responsibilities that you fulfill and yet do not get rewarded for, or if you have been waiting for that promotion for an indefinite amount of time and it never comes, then it is only logical that you will feel overworked and unappreciated, leading to increased frustration and dissatisfaction from your work.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics, AKA a toxic work environment, constitutes another risk factor for the development of burnout. Simply put, this means an environment that is not pleasant to work in and spend such a long portion of every day, where you deal with frequent conflict between colleagues and lack of sufficient management from your superiors.
Lack of support, guidance and mentoring in the workplace is another risk factor. It makes perfect sense: the less supported and assisted you feel at work, the more unsafe you perceive your work environment, and the more susceptible you are to develop burnout.
Social support out of work is equally important, thus the lack of it constitutes a risk for burnout (and many other mental health issues too).
Values: Lack of Meaning and Purpose
When the values you most believe in come to clash with the ones projected at your workplace, this creates cognitive dissonance in you, as you realize that you have to work on a daily basis for something you don’t really believe in and you may even be ethically opposed to.
When your job is meaningful and purposeful to you, then you are inclined to value it and enjoy it more. If you don’t find meaning in what you do, then when pressure is added to the picture, it is likely you will not cope as effectively as if you would sincerely enjoy your work.
“What job would you choose to do, if money was not an issue?”
The closest your professional reality is to your answer, the more meaning you are likely to derive from your job. Fortunately, there are ways to increase the sense of purpose and satisfaction from your job- but this will be the focus of a future blog post.
It may be noteworthy to add here, that while meaning is very important, it does not guarantee escaping a burnout altogether. In fact, the term burnout first started to be used with regards to health care professions (e.g. nurses, doctors, psychologists etc). Most individuals choosing to become “caregivers” are actually quite devoted to their job and find it purposeful and meaningful- but often fail to recognize their own boundaries, and keep giving without being able to look after themselves adequately, therefore at great risk of burnout and “compassion fatigue”.
Still though, one could argue that it is much preferable to work a lot and love your job, consider it a “calling” that adds value to your life and the lives of others, than work a lot and hate your job, and see it only as a source of income and a “necessary evil”.
In the first occasion, burnout will come if you do not respect your limits, but in the second one, it is definite you will not last long unaffected- it’s just a matter of time.
In order to avoid burnout, what is essential is to discover that gentle balance between work and self-care, even if you deeply value your work.
Burnout, Depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Burnout and depression are quite similar to each other, and often burnout further aggravates into depression if left unattended.
The features of burnout are also symptoms of depression. Although burnout does not constitute an official diagnosis , its similarity with depression can cause a misdiagnosis of depression (and vice versa), which would result in unsuitable treatment.
Exhaustion, reduced performance and motivation, and feeling numb and alienated are amongst mong the symptoms of depression, yet the two conditions are not the same.
There are more symptoms to suggest a depression diagnosis, such as changes in sleep, appetite, libido, lack of enjoyment from activities previously pleasurable, suicidal ideation and tendencies and more.
The main difference between burnout and depression is that burnout is characterized by helplessness and dissatisfaction that is confined to the work environment, while in depression this covers various areas of the individual’s life. In depression, negative thoughts and emotions reflect a bleak perspective towards Self, Others, and Future, thereby greatly affecting self-esteem.
The more severe the burnout, the qualitatively closer it is to depression.
Another condition considered to be related to burnout is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Persistent burnout theory is behind this syndrome, meaning that if the sense of burnout is not eliminated after the initial stressors have been removed, or lifestyle changes have been applied, then the individual runs the risk of developing CFS.
Now that you may be more aware and well-informed about what burnout is and what are the risk factors, putting conscious effort to actively minimize the risk of burnout is the way to go.
Since this blog got somewhat lengthy already, we will focus on ways to increase job satisfaction and thereby avoide burnout in the future.
It is important to seek professional support if you suspect having signs of a burnout, in order to evaluate how to prohibit it from getting more serious, as well as explore how to cope with work stress more effectively by changing your lifestyle and placing priority on your self-care.