What is burnout, and how can you cope with it?



What is burnout, and how can you cope with it?


More and more people are admitting to burnout at work. In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”.

Recently, a study of around 7,500 full time workers discovered that 23% were in “burnout mode” regularly, while around 44% “sometimes” entered burnout mode.

WHO do not yet recognise burnout as a medical condition, some researchers describe it as “an occupational disease”. This is due to high numbers of people worldwide experiencing it, as well as its impact on workers’ wellbeing and quality of life.

Occupations where workers encounter high stress levels have been linked to higher risk of burnout. Such professions include healthcare, social work, police work, teaching, and customer services. Lawyers and academics have also reported high levels of burnout.

What is burnout and how does it differ from other types of occupational stress? How can a person cope with burnout and learn to overcome it with time?


What is burnout?


Academics and mental health professionals have been working for years to define burnout.

"In a nutshell, [burnout] is a syndrome brought on from chronic workplace stress that hasn't been successfully managed," explained Kat Hounsell.

Hounsell is the founder of everyday people, an organization (based in the United Kingdom) that offers leadership development, well-being coaching workshops, and mental health first aid training.

"[It] can include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or negative/cynical feelings related to one's job — including reduced belief that [the person is] capable of doing the job and producing good results," she continued.

"Burnout can be defined as the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long term, unresolved stress," agreed business neurolinguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer Tania Diggory.

Diggory is also the founder and director of Calmer, which supports entrepreneurs and professional teams with mental health and well-being training.

Burnout, however, is not simply work related stress – a moderate amount of stress at work can even have positive outcomes. So what is the difference?


The difference between stress and burnout


Stress has been found to help boost a person’s motivation, causing short term improvement of mental performance.

There is nothing positive about burnout, Diggory told Medical News Today. "The difference between burnout and work related stress is the point at which it becomes a serious health issue," she explained.

"Stress is something we all go through and there are different degrees of stress [...]. However, studies have shown that ongoing, high levels of cortisol — the primary stress hormone — are not good for our well-being," Diggory said.

"When stress starts to build over a period of time and we experience symptoms of anxiety or low moods," she added, "this can lead to chronic stress and our cognitive skills can become impaired. By this, I mean that our working memory, our ability to think logically and carry out tasks effectively isn't as sharp as it usually is."

"High volumes of stress over a long period of time can lead to exhaustion and, therefore, burnout."


Why does burnout occur?


Constant pressure to achieve coupled with few breaks from work can add to stress levels, and can cause a person to feel overwhelmed and more likely to reach the burnout stage.

Aside from workload, other factors can contribute to burnout. Medical News Today interviewed various people who had experienced burnout, and found that financial stress and workplace bullying can also play a part.

"I experienced burnout [...] in the second year of my Ph.D., when there was just a constant level of stress underlying everything that I was doing in my job," the interviewee said.

"That was from the workload that I had, financial struggles that went along with it, some workplace bullying — my supervisor and my team were very unsupportive," they added.


A second interviewee who used to work in a public-facing job in a healthcare environment also mentioned that his relationship with his managers increased his risk of burnout.

"I think it was a mixture of unachievable targets and often having to deliver bad news to people as part of the job [that led me to burnout]. My managers did not deal with stress well either, which often had a knock-on effect to the rest of the team," he told MNT.

Many people that Medical News Today spoke with explained that higher-ups and peers, who worked to exhaustion and did not reserve any time for recovery – set an example which contributed to burnout.

"I found it really hard to tell that I was experiencing burnout [when] I was, and when people told me that I was, I didn't believe them," said a third interviewee. He entered burnout mode while juggling a full time postgraduate degree and a job in order to make ends meet.

"In a way, [I] kind of thought that I wasn't working enough. [...] You get pressure from almost all angles, and one of the things I think isn't talked about enough [in examples of academic burnout] is that natural, peer-to-peer pressure that you get."

"I'm thinking about the shared misery of working on a Saturday, past midnight, or posting photos on social media accounts [showing] that you're working on the beach although you should be on holiday. That sort of pressure, I think, really gets in your head," he added.


'A growing epidemic of should-based thinking'


Diggory told MNT that modern society drives people to let their work seep into their home life, which they should be using for leisure and personal relationships.

"From my observation, modern day society is driven so much by technology that we are experiencing an ever-on culture, where you can be online, contactable, and search for information 24/7 — for the human body and its sensory system, this can be overwhelming in large volumes," she warned.

"In the context of business, while there are multiple benefits to being more globally connected than ever before, I've personally noticed a growing epidemic of should-based thinking. Because we can work anytime, it doesn't mean we need to."

"However," she added, "unhelpful thinking patterns such as 'I should be working more,' 'I should be checking my emails,' 'I should work late again, there's just too much to do...' can lead us to experience high levels of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety."

How does burnout affect people?

"It was like I was swimming through a dark tunnel filled with custard. It sounds kind of stupid, but basically I was wading through this dense, horrible time."

This is how one of the previously mentioned interviewees described how he experienced burnout.

Burnout can affect someone’s wellbeing and quality of life in multiple ways, which can lead to poor physical and mental health as well as a sense of isolation. It can also contribute to anhedonia – a loss of pleasure in activites that used to be pleasurable.

Describing what the burnout zone looks like to them, the second interviewee said, "I was working myself into the ground for a long time and stayed up until 2 a.m., not eating properly, just focusing on research and work constantly, and giving all of my time and energy to that without spending any time on things that I used to enjoy doing."

All interviewees described how burnout made them feel isolated. A fourth interviewee exclaimed: "[Burnout] affected every part of my life! It impacted my ability to concentrate and focus on my work, I couldn't sleep, I was constantly worried about work but felt unable to actually do any, it led to an anxious procrastination where I was constantly worrying about work but unable to get anything productive accomplished."

She added that "[t]hese feelings of stress and inadequacy quickly had a negative effect on my friendships and relationships. For a period I felt unable to leave the house, making me feel increasingly socially isolated."

Tips on coping and recovery


The first step towards managing and ultimately overcoming burnout is to recognise that you are experiencing it. As the interviewees noted, this can be difficult, particularly if burnout causes isolation from others.

If colleagues and peers are also facing a high amount of work related stress and do not recognise that they are at risk of burnout, it can make things even more difficult.

However, the interviewees explained that sharing their experiences was a way of getting to the root of the problem.

One said that it was through speaking to friends that they realized they were experiencing burnout — and that their peers were experiencing it, too.

For another, the understanding that she was in burnout mode also came from speaking to a friend.

"I reached out to a friend who was in a similar position, who mentioned she felt all her resources were completely depleted, she mentioned feeling burned out and I thought: 'That's it! I'm exhausted and feel I have nothing left to give to my work,'" she told MNT.

When you recognise that you are experiencing burnout, Kat Hounsell advised that breaking the cycle of isolation is a good next step. "Ask for help, you don't need to battle burnout alone," she said.

"Good workplaces will have supports in place for when team members need help, but they're not always well communicated. Find someone at work [who] you trust, and ask what's available, [such as] a confidential [employee assistance program] system, occupational health support, even flexible working opportunities."


'Give yourself permission to take time off'


From there, the next step to overcome burnout is to make more time for yourself – with intention. All the people who spoke to MNT about their burnout said that by leaving themselves time to do something enjoyable regularly helped.

"Taking time off and away from work helped! It was difficult to escape these [negative] feelings after hours and at the weekend without activities such as sports and playing music, although feeling low on energy could make these hard sometimes," one said.

Multiple interviewees said that taking up running helped them feel better both physically and mentally, motivated them to get out of the house regularly, and helped keep their minds off work related problems.

Any activity can be helpful, as long as it is something that you as an individual can use to relax – as Diggory explained, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing.

"So to start with, it's essential to give yourself permission to take time off work and enable yourself to build your inner strength. If you imagine you'd broken your leg, you wouldn't expect to get on with life as normal without taking appropriate rest and recuperation, until you'd built up the physical strength you needed."


Not just an individual responsibility


Everyone should try to set healthful boundaries in their work life, learn to say “no” when workload becomes overwhelming, and ask for help when needed. However, the responsibility of preventing and overcoming burnout does not only rest with the individual experiencing it.

It is recommended that organisations need to put in place systems that will foster employees’ wellbeing.

"At an organizational level, one top tip is for the business to accept that burnout happens, and that a culture that fosters well-being and good mental health is a must-have. A foundation building block is to conduct regular stress risk assessments (and act on the output)," advised Hounsell.

Diggory agreed. "I believe the solution [to tackling burnout] is reliant on organizations implementing a well-being strategy to nurture a mentally healthy culture in their workplaces; a happy business starts with managers and their staff," she told MNT.

Yet she added that people can take some steps in preventing burnout, particularly by "replac[ing] the 'shoulds' with 'coulds.'"

For instance, she said that if you find yourself thinking, "I could work more," instead, try telling yourself: "I've worked a lot today, and I deserve a break. I'll preserve my energy levels for my family [and] friends, and then feel at my best for work tomorrow."

She challenged MNT readers to reassess their thought patterns, asking them, "What choice will you make today?"



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