Beating Burnout

10 Jan 2023

Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion and by chronic negative responses to stressful conditions.  While not considered a mental illness, burnout can be considered a mental health issue. Burnout is more likely when people:

  • Expect too much of themselves
  • Never feel that the work they are doing is good enough
  • Feel inadequate or incompetent
  • Feel unappreciated for their efforts
  • Have unreasonable demands placed upon them
  • Take on more than they can handle

Because it can be chronic in nature, affecting both the health and performance of someone in all aspects of their lives, prevention strategies are considered the most effective approach for addressing burnout.

Recognize signs and symptoms
The majority of people experiencing burnout will continue to do their normal routine. Being aware of changes in attitudes and energy can help with early identification. People may not realize that they are dealing with burnout and may instead believe that they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. Stress, however, is usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency while burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness or apathy.

One may not be aware of the negative impacts on their performance that this can have, such as increased errors or lower productivity. Others may attribute the changes to a poor attitude or loss of motivation. The negative effects of burnout can increase significantly before anyone recognizes or addresses the problem and unaddressed burnout can increase the chance of developing clinical depression or other serious conditions. Some of the signs and symptoms that an employee experiencing burnout may exhibit include:

  • Reduced efficiency and energy
  • Lowered levels of motivation
  • Increased errors
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Increased frustration
  • Suspiciousness
  • More time spent working with less being accomplished

Severe burnout can also result in:

  • Self-medication with alcohol and other substances
  • Sarcasm and negativity
  • Debilitating self-doubt

Left unaddressed, burnout may result in a number of outcomes including:

  • Poor physical health
  • Clinical depression
  • Reduced satisfaction
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased procrastination
  • Increased risk of accidents
  • Poor morale
  • Relationship breakdown with others

The lies we tell ourselves
Some people who have recovered from burnout share what they called “the lies we told ourselves” related to denying the signs of burnout, even when loved ones pointed it out to them. These included:

  • I am fine
  • It is your nagging at me that is stressful
  • I love my studies/job
  • I am happy to take more on
  • I am just tired
  • You don’t understand, no one else can do this
  • People are depending on me
  • I really want to be helpful
  • I will be fine once this is done
  • This too will pass
  • I need to get back to the top of my game
  • I’ll take a vacation and then be okay
  • If people just let me do my work, I would be fine
  • It’s not me, it is everyone and everything else

Most actually believed these statements to be true and to a certain extent, many of them were. The “lie” was in denying that their current situation was damaging their health and well-being and that changes were necessary. This denial eventually led to burnout.

Prevention strategies

  • Provide clear expectations for yourself.
  • Make sure you have the necessary resources and skills to meet expectations.
  • Understand your goals.
  • Enforce reasonable work hours.
  • Regularly assess your workload.
  • Set reasonable and realistic expectations.
  • Seek social support.
  • Engage in physical activity throughout the day.
  • Taking of breaks away from the work environment.

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