“Burnout is what happens when you avoid being inhuman for too long” ~Michael Gungor

Are you burning out?
How do you feel about your job? Are you over it? Do you remind yourself how much you wanted this job, initially, and now you are not so sure that it is worth it! Do you also believe that due to financial or other reasons that you can’t leave your job?

You might also find yourself:
•    being annoyed and frustrated often
•    feeling exhausted much of the time
•    losing motivation and enthusiasms
•    sense of achievement is slipping
•    thinking that you are not up to it
•    feeling trapped
•    feeling alone and unsupported
•    feeling resentful
•    doubting that it is worth the effort
•    thinking of quitting 

If so, you are probably on the road to burnout… Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves there, not knowing how we got there. Key is to recognise the impact that chronic stress is having on you and find ways to ease the chronic stress and therefore prevent burnout to remain motivated and productive in your work.

Stress puts a lot of pressure on us physically and mentally. Often, we can manage stress over a short period, but when it becomes constant, it will begin to negatively impact our health. In this article, we will look at burnout, describing the signs and symptoms, the conditions where it is most likely to arise and why you should attend to it before it’s too entrenched. In a second articles called: “The difference between chronic stress and burnout and what we can to in the workplace and personally to alleviate it.” we present important strategies that you can practice in the workplace and personally to alleviate chronic stress and burnout.

What Is Burnout?
"Burnout is the car crash you don’t see coming." ~Stacey King Gordon

Workplace burn-out has become a serious health issue. In May 2019, it was classified by the World Health Organisation(WHO) as an occupational syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed".

WHO further characterises burnout as:
•    feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
•    increased mental distance from one's job,  
•    feelings of negativism  
•    cynicism related to one's job
•    reduced professional efficacy

While burnout negatively impacts our physical and mental health and is a valid reason to contact health services, it is not classified by the WHO as a medical condition.

To sum up, burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It follows a time when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet the constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest or motivation. Burnout and chronic stress are pretty similar but it is important to recognise their differences.  In chronic stress, you are engaged but feeling very anxious while burnout is when you feel it is too much and you are starting to experience symptoms of helplessness. It is crucial to recognize the signs of burnout before they escalate. Are you still wondering if it is burnout?  Here is a list of symptoms:

•    Feeling fatigued, depleted and exhausted at work, losing motivation
•    feeling inadequate and defective,
•    feeling numb, empty or lacking in emotion
•    experiencing frustration, conflict and resentment with co-workers,
•    withdrawing emotionally from work, as well as from friends and family.
•    difficulty to focus or concentrate, poor memory
•    insomnia, anxiety, depression, loneliness
•    Negative views of self, others and the world
•    Physical conditions: headaches, high blood pressure, breathing or digestive disorders.

When you have reached a burnout point, life is losing colours and meaning. It is increasingly difficult to care about what used to be important for you.  Your motivation and drive are vanishing rapidly.

The major difference between stress and burnout is the intensity to which you are experiencing the symptoms. That is, with chronic stress you may feel tired most days but with burnout, you are feeling exhausted and unmotivated. For more details on the differences between chronic stress and burnout, you can read our other article where we present a chart on the differences. Here is the link. If you are finding that you are experiencing many of the symptoms of burnout, it is important to take steps to ease your stress to avoid progressively becoming more burnout.

Behaviours that can increase chronic stress and risk of burnout
Sometimes we can’t see or don’t want to see that burnout is creeping in. We may tell ourselves that the stress is temporary. Once this project is finished or after the next goal is met, it will get easier, but instead the stress continues unrelenting; there is another important project, another goal, with the risk of burnout ever-increasing. So, it is also important to watch your behaviours that are increasing your risk of burnout, not just keeping track of the symptoms. Here is a list of behaviours which increase the risk of chronic stress and burnout:

•    Working overtime frequently.
•    Working after hours at home or during holidays
•    Checking work email in the evening or over the weekend.
•    Accepting new work/projects even when you are at full capacity.
•    Not being able to set boundaries
•    Sleeping less to work more
•    Putting off self-care practices such as exercises, lunch break or meeting with friends or having a holiday.

We don’t burn out because we are inadequate, we burn out because we are not realistic about our limitations, and we overdo it.    

Burnout and the brain
Underlying burnout is chronic stress which actually has been found to change the structure of the brain over time. Research is showing that chronic stress actually changes the brain which results in feelings of burnout, increasing the inability to deal with stress and regulate emotions. Neuroimaging studies have found similarities between the brains of those who suffer from early-life trauma and those who deal with clinical burn-out in adulthood.  

The changes in the brain affect memory, creativity, concentration and attention spans as well as reducing capacity to control negative emotions, and therefore facilitate become stressed more quickly. Other studies have shown that chronic stress thins the frontal cortex, a process normally associated with ageing. But it is important to note also that the changes in the brain are not permanent and have been shown to be reversible.

Causes of burnout
Burnout is complex and is not necessarily because you are working long hours. It can follow some serious disappointments at work such as lack of support or unclear roles. It could also be that your core values do not resonate anymore with your role. Burnout could be caused also by a crisis in your personal life that is depleting your resources at work. Usually, in burnout mode there is a sense of lack of control and a negative mindset of cynicism, resentment, helplessness, and lethargy.

Work environment
Some work environments where there is continual high-stress conditions are especially demanding such as in the health and medical sectors (doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, psychologists, social workers, paramedics, care workers), school teachers, retail staff and law enforcement (police officers, lawyers). If you are working in a very demanding sector and you are feeling disillusioned with your role maybe it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate.

Often the experience of burnout is ignored or denied for quite a while. Then the symptoms start to pile on each other, being more entrenched and more difficult to alleviate. The burnout symptoms are a call for making changes and exploring alternatives, to find a resolve. The symptoms are on a continuum starting with chronic stress to gradually becoming more intense becoming burnout. It is important to become aware of the signs early so it is easier to manage it. Read our second article on burnout to explore the difference between chronic stress and burnout as well as what you can do in the workplace and personally to alleviate it.