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Feeling burnt out? What is burnout and how do we prevent it?

Written by Dr. Nicola Eccles on 21 Mar 2023

We hear the term burnout in relation to University and working life.  So many of us describe feeling overwhelmed right now.  But what is burnout?  How do we know if a colleague or a friend might have it?  Or even if we are burnt out ourselves?

·      Are you feeling energy depletion or exhaustion?

·      Do you have increased mental distance from your job or feelings of negativity towards your career?

·      Do you have reduced productivity?

If so, it may mean burnout. The above criteria comprise the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout, “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”   As burnout is a stress-related condition, people with burnout can experience a host of physical and mental symptoms. It is challenging to tackle the causes of burnout because society and culture push us to ‘do more’, ‘be more’ and ‘want more’.  This struggle to excel whilst experiencing symptoms of stress, fatigue, overwhelm and ultimately burnout can leave us feeling lonely and stigmatised.  Everyone else seems to be able to do it…and be doing it…so why can’t we?

Consider carefully the WHO definition above,  ‘not been successfully managed’.  Burnout is avoidable through self-management and through a supportive organisation and environment.  Awareness is the first step.

There are 5 stages to burnout:

Honeymoon – where you have high job satisfaction and feel commitment, energy and creativity

Stress – where some days are better than others depending on how well you handle the job (or more importantly the skills you own and tools you possess which enable you to handle the job)

Chronic stress – you are beginning to feel powerless and unfulfilled (and your capacity to address the issues are reducing)

Crisis – you see no way out and begin to develop an escapist mentality (distraction techniques, avoidance)

Burnout – You just can’t do it anymore (physical or mental collapse)

Studies show just how detrimental burnout is.  It impacts your daily experiences with work, colleagues, family and community.  It dramatically impacts your physical health and your productivity and your psychological wellbeing.   Physiologically it leads to diabetes, coronary heart disease, prolonged fatigue, stomach issues and respiratory problems.  Psychologically it leads to insomnia, depression and general psychological ill-health.   

Importantly, once you are burnt out…a two week holiday will not be the solution.  It will take months of re-framing work practices and re-instating boundaries and relationships along with time and investment in self awareness. 

How can we play a part in addressing burnout?  Believing that you are powerless is the biggest barrier to change.

1.     Address the demands: It may be helpful to take a step back from your current situation and take an objective view about the kind of work you are suited for.   What are your strengths?  Where do you excel?  What capacity do you have each day?  How does this line up with your responsibilities and demands in your personal life?  How can you begin to see yourself as a WHOLE rather than as split between ‘work’ and ‘home’?  This is a very reductionist view of work life balance and doesn’t help to address the issues of burnout.

2.     Become self aware:  Self awareness and compassion are the foundation bricks of resilience.  Resilience helps to prevent and dilute stress which in turn prevents burnout.  Look at what it is you are doing well.  Identify where you make significant contributions in life and at work. 

3.     Creating boundaries: One of the products of stress and pressure is an increased lack of ability to make effective decisions.   Creating boundaries helps to add clarity to this process and give a sense of control. However, for many, particularly in times of austerity and job uncertainty, creating boundaries feels like an impossible task, particularly in the workplace.

By being highly selective about what you agree to, it is possible to regain the sense of control that may have been lost through overwhelming workplace demands. To decide what to say yes to, explore your options; eliminate the non-essentials; and execute your plan both at work, where possible, and in your home and community (Greg McKeown  - Essentialism – the disciplined pursuit of less (2014) talks in detail about how we can enact this).   This may not be possible in all aspects of life and types of work, but once you take power for opening up the conversation you will feel stronger and on the path to reducing stress.

Believing that you are powerless is the biggest barrier to change.