Today’s personal and professional landscapes are arguably more demanding than ever before. From the unreasonable expectations of a social media-driven comparison culture to the intense demands made by our hyper-competitive professional environment, burnout is affecting people across the country and around the globe regardless of occupation or lifestyle.
Burnout can be highly detrimental to one’s mental health. In today’s highly pressurised world, it’s important to be able to recognise burnout before it becomes serious and detracts from your mental health.
What is burnout?
Though the term has been applied broadly in recent years, the burnout experience has been scientifically defined. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as a syndrome that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It generally consists of attributes or experiences in three areas:
Experiences of sustained loss of energy
This can feel like lethargy or exhaustion and usually cannot be aided by increased sleep (though oftentimes people experiencing burnout situations may not have the option of increasing their sleep due to the demands of whatever is causing the burnout).
Experiences of disassociation or negativism towards one’s job
This can include creating or experiencing internal distance from one’s work, cynicism toward one’s team or employer, or sustained lack of interest.
Experiences of a lack of purpose
This is sometimes characterised as a perceived lack of effectiveness or accomplishment, hopelessness, or a belief that satisfaction or fulfilment is impossible in one’s role or workplace.
Understanding how burnout occurs
Psychologists and sociologists use various frameworks to conceptualise and better understand how burnout works. From theories of human development to different ways of understanding our emotional and cognitive states, the origins and science behind burnout can be approached in multiple ways. More practically for the layman, however, it’s important to identify common causes of burnout and experiences or patterns that could cause or exacerbate burnout experiences.
Put simply, “Burnout is a stress response to chronic stressors on the job,” explains Jess Tveit, a mental health professional at Denver Health. It’s important to note that the word “stressors” in the context of burnout does not refer to something that makes you feel “stressed” in the conventional sense of the word, though being aware of a feeling of stress can certainly accompany burnout. In this context, “stress” is any experience or phenomenon that requires energy from one or more of your bodily systems.
As an example, physical exercise stresses your muscular, cardiovascular, and skeletal systems in a way that requires rest and recovery time before those systems are able to operate again at full capacity. It is important to point out this distinction because sometimes an individual would not consciously perceive emotional feelings of stress or anxiety even though they are exhibiting other symptoms of burnout such as physical fatigue or hopelessness.
The definition above indicates two important realities about burnout that should be taken into account. First, “stressors” indicates the kind of experience or event that causes burnout. These might include emotional, cognitive, or physical stressors. Stressors might range from an emotionally draining or manipulative boss to a physically demanding workload. And second, “chronic” implies stressors that occur on an ongoing or sustained basis.
The body’s systems are capable of effectively dealing with a wide range of stressors. It can often manage its recovery process from things like many injuries, a gruelling workout, or even a traumatic experience without much intervention. However, when bodily systems are subjected to stresses that continue for periods of time, eventually those stresses can overwhelm their ability to recuperate. This is what most often results in burnout.
Symptoms of burnout
How do you know if you are struggling with a case of burnout? Hawaii Pacific University includes a number of symptoms in its description of burnout, including moodiness and irritability, anxiety or panic, dreading going to work, and/or a lack of joy and fulfilment in the workplace. In addition to these symptoms, burnout can cause physical or physiological symptoms that include chronic fatigue, digestive problems, headaches, disrupted sleep or insomnia, body aches, and more.
Distinguishing burnout from other mental health stressors
Though burnout is an increasingly common experience for professionals in today’s workforce, there are a number of other mental health conditions that can sometimes present similar symptoms. It’s important to be aware of how what might seem a symptom of burnout might indicate a different issue or vice versa.
Instances of clinical depression or anxiety disorders can often include some of the same symptoms as burnout. These might include feelings of hopelessness, apathy, lethargy, difficulty sleeping, anxious feelings or thoughts, and changes in mood patterns. However, depressive and anxiety disorders include other symptoms that aren’t usually associated with burnout. All three mental health problems are serious and should not be left unattended. If you are experiencing symptoms you think might belong to any of these three conditions, it is highly recommended that you speak to a mental health professional about your experiences.
Compassion fatigue can be another common workplace mental health concern, especially for professionals who work with persons who are undergoing or have undergone significant trauma or suffering. This is a highly common occurrence for those that work in nursing, social work, the justice or law enforcement system, hospice care, or similar. Symptoms can include irritability, anger, depressive feelings or depression, and/or hopelessness. Compassion fatigue is a different phenomenon than burnout (though both could occur at the same time).
Sometimes, symptoms similar to those of burnout could be present but are manifesting due to other causes. Domestic stress or difficulty, large lifestyle transitions, past trauma, emotionally difficult situations or relationships, and more could be causing burnout-like symptoms to manifest in the workplace. When investigating feelings that seem like burnout, be aware that they might actually be coming from a different source. It’s important to seek professional help to identify and navigate possible conditions of burnout or any other mental health strain.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.