Understanding Burnout: A Guide to Recognizing and Overcoming Exhaustion

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Burnout is a term that has been around since the 1970s when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first described it as the “extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” While not officially classified as a mental health disorder, burnout is a range of symptoms that impact our overall working experience.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion.” However, exhaustion is just one aspect of burnout and is often a result rather than a cue for action. The awareness of burnout increased during the pandemic when many individuals started experiencing physical and mental health symptoms. However, it’s important to note that job burnout is not new.

A study conducted by Deloitte 2012 revealed that 77 per cent of professionals surveyed had experienced burnout in their current workplace. Furthermore, 91% agreed that an overwhelming amount of stress negatively impacts the quality of their work. The statistics are even more alarming among emergency services and those who work with vulnerable clients, with rates nearly 50% higher than the national average. This includes professionals like police officers, paramedics, GPs, counsellors, and probation staff.

There are various types of burnout, but we’ll focus on two: overload and neglect burnout. Overload burnout occurs when individuals consistently work at an unsustainable pace due to factors like restructuring and budget cuts. Neglect burnout, on the other hand, arises when individuals feel disengaged and believe their work has no impact. Recognizing early signs of burnout is crucial to prevent its progression.

So, what does burnout look like? My advice to HR personnel and managers is to get to know your staff so that you can notice subtle changes indicating something isn’t right. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight; it develops gradually over time.

A study in 2021 outlined five stages of burnout:
1. The honeymoon phase: During this stage, individuals adore their job, feel energized and creative, and strongly connect to its purpose. However, this phase only lasts for a while.
2. The balancing act: Challenging days start to appear, and individuals may struggle to maintain the same level of productivity. Symptoms like an ever-growing to-do list disturbed sleep, and difficulty completing tasks may surface.
3. Chronic stress phase: Stress occurs frequently, and individuals may panic or resent being asked to do something. They feel exhausted, merely getting through each day, and often dread Monday mornings.
4. Burnout: Physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of burnout become apparent. Symptoms can overlap with chronic stress, but recognizing these cues early can prevent further deterioration. Physically, burnout may manifest as gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and chest pains. Cognitively, individuals may struggle to concentrate, experience brain fog, and procrastinate. Behaviorally, they may work longer hours, disengage from positive relationships, become insular, and neglect personal relationships.
5. Enmeshment: If burnout continues, it becomes the new default way of being, leading to the likelihood of being diagnosed with conditions like anxiety or depression.
Fortunately, burnout is not permanent, and it’s essential to address it by considering multiple factors, not just work-related issues. Here are some steps you can take to recover from burnout:
1. Discuss it: Talk to your HR department or line manager about your burnout experience if you feel comfortable doing so. Identifying sources of stress and unfair expectations can help create a wellness action plan, allowing you to assert boundaries without feeling guilty.
2. Invest in yourself: Engage in activities outside of work that bring you joy and rejuvenation. Strengthen bonds with loved ones and participate in hobbies that boost your productivity and happiness.
3. Build relationships: Foster connections with your work colleagues to create a sense of community and belonging. These relationships can also remind you of the purpose behind your work.
4. Structure your day: If you have the option of hybrid working, organize your day in a way that benefits you. Communicate your availability to your team members, minimizing unnecessary work-related distractions outside of designated hours.
5. Seek help and delegate: Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance and delegate tasks. Even small tasks that save you time can make a significant difference.
6. Celebrate wins: Acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments every day. Journaling your achievements can improve your sleep quality and help you recognize your small successes.
7. Practice relaxation techniques: Incorporate relaxation techniques into your routine to activate your nervous system and manage stress more effectively. This can help reduce cortisol levels, which are associated with physical ailments.
8. Be kind to yourself: Remember to be gentle with yourself. If you’re feeling exhausted, don’t feel obligated to push yourself to the limits. Embrace the principle of small steps leading to significant changes.

Burnout can be overcome with the right approach and support. Taking proactive steps to address burnout and prioritizing self-care can regain your well-being and find a healthy work-life balance.

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