If you’re burning out, does that just mean that you feel really stressed, all the time? Not quite. Though chronic workplace stress, for sure, is a primary factor when someone is burning out.
This article is a modified excerpt from my new book, The Resilient LIfe: Manage Stress, Prevent Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health. This is just a small section from Chapter 2: “Reduce Your Vulnerability to Burnout”.
So what’s the definition of burnout? I like this one, coined by a group of German researchers in an article in the journal Burnout Research:
“An exhaustion of the organism which is caused by work stress.”
I’ve been teaching about burnout for well over a decade, and I’ll always remember the day in 2019 when the World Health Organization added burnout to the ICD-11 (the International Classification of Diseases – though it’s important to point out that burnout isn’t a formally diagnosable mental health condition or medical disease).
In their description, the WHO defined three dimensions that characterize what happens when someone is burning out. Most experts agree on these three key clinical criteria (first described by Maslach and Jackson in 1981): feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, with feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Here’s what that triad looks and feels like:
1. Emotional exhaustion
You wake up every morning, not knowing how you’ll face the day. Tasks that used to feel simple or routine feel overwhelming. Your tank is empty, and a weekend off (or a week off) just doesn’t seem to fill it back up.
I must point out that there are other things that can cause you to feel this way. For example, depression and burnout can present with similar symptoms, so it’s important not to diagnose yourself (the information should never replace getting help and personalized medical advice from your physician).
Some studies have reported a shared overlap between depression and burnout, and the two conditions are more likely to coexist in someone who is severely burned out. That’s what happened to me. I was diagnosed with severe depression during my ER residency training, but I appreciate now that burnout played just as much or even more of a role in the symptoms that I was experiencing.
2. Depersonalization and cynicism
In the medical clinic setting where I worked for a couple of decades, the first sign that I may have been burning out was my irritation with patients. I’d start to feel impatient if someone was taking too long to explain their situation. I would resent it when someone insisted that they needed to be squeezed in to see me (for urgent, legitimate reasons), at the end of a long day. My compassion for people palpably dwindled.
When you experience the depersonalization of burnout, you stop seeing people as people. It’s as if your brain turns off your compassion, your ability to identify with others and their problems and concerns, as a self-protective mechanism. You become noticeably cynical. The way you treat people may change. This impacts your relationships with both clients and coworkers, creating a spiral of negativity.
You might also notice yourself complaining more about your work or organization. Typically, you’ll feel resentful or unusually negative about your work environment and tasks.
Cultivate more compassion for yourself, and others, if you observe this phenomenon. If you’ve become markedly more negative, don’t judge yourself harshly. See it as a red flag pointing to something very important. You could be burning out, and all this negativity may simply be your brain crying for help. Don’t ignore it.
3. Reduced personal accomplishment or efficacy
When you’re worn out from work-related stress, you don’t perform at your best. It’s no surprise that burned-out people feel anxious about the quality of their performance, and start to lose their confidence.
Maslach and Jackson describe this third hallmark of burnout: “Workers feel unhappy about themselves and dissatisfied with their accomplishments on the job.”11 If you used to feel confident about your work but now find yourself doubting your abilities or feeling unfit for your job, that could be burnout talking—especially if you enjoyed your work in the past and felt like it was the right place for you to be.
I also caution people to be careful about quitting when you feel like this. Burnout feels awful, and the desire to quit can be really tempting. Sometimes that’s the right decision. In my experience as a coach, though, I’ve seen that if negative organizational or team dynamics get addressed, and you learn better boundaries and take better care of yourself, things typically feel much better and your appreciation for your work returns.
Let’s shift our workplaces – and ourselves – from burning out into thriving.
Any working person is at risk for burnout. Our hyperconnected-24/7 society, when combined with the unprecedented stresses of the last few years, has created an environment where people are more vulnerable than ever. One of the key things we need to do, to start to shift out of our current burnout “pandemic”, is address the root causes at an organizational level – such as excess workloads and hard-driving workplace cultures.
The good news is that if you learn to understand the causes, recognize the signs, know your unique risks, and learn what to do about it, you’ll be better equipped to navigate today’s challenging work environments.
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