Making burnout the monster
Do you want to talk about burnout? I’m guessing its not something you regularly discuss over your morning hot drink, or find to be a popular topic for discussion among your friends and colleagues. That reluctance to talk about burnout can become part of the problem. It makes burnout the big scary monster that we are hoping won’t jump out of the closet. Maybe in those moments when you have trouble sleeping, have a headache (again) or get up in the morning feeling depleted and worn out, you secretly wonder about burnout. But you get back to work (which on good days you really love) and quickly shut the closet door on those feelings, and those wonderings, hoping the monster won’t get out.
Loving our jobs and our businesses doesn’t protect us from burnout. Researchers Parker, Tavella, and Eyers (2021) found that “burnout rates appear lowest in those whose work is simply a job, higher in those who view their work as a career and highest in those whose work is at the level of a ‘calling.”
So lets take that burnout monster out of the closet and take a closer look at it, and see if it is really as scary as we think it might be. I am not sure whether I have suffered from burnout or not – I definitely had a period of my life when I was depleted and exhausted by my work, but that also coincided with a lot of stress in my personal life. This made it hard to distinguish where the stress originated. The technical definition of burnout from WHO limits it to a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is characterised by symptoms or feelings in four main areas.
- feelings of depletion and exhaustion,
- feeling cynical, negative or apathetic towards your job and clients,
- feeling that you are not doing a good job (and sometimes reduced productivity and effectiveness).
cognitive struggles, such as difficult concentrating and remembering things.
The other reason I am not sure if I would ever class myself as having burnout is that having those feelings associated with burnout are very common, especially for those of us whose jobs contain an emotional component. Having those feelings from time to time don’t necessarily mean that you have or will go on to have a full on experience of the syndrome of burnout. It is when these signs and symptoms of chronic stress are sustained over a long period and begin to impact on your functionality that concern is warranted.
In many ways it doesn’t matter if what I experienced ever got the label of burnout or not. What matters is that I talked about how I was feeling, and made changes in my work and in my personal resilience to cope better with all that was happening. We need to talk well about burnout so that it is no longer a scary monster, but a common experience with no shame attached. Then we can take action quickly in evidence informed ways. Feelings of stress and burnout are warning signals and it is important that you listen to them rather than try and stuff them back in the closet. van Dam (2021) found that people who developed clinical burnout had ignored their stress responses for a long time and kept working until working in a highly stressed state became normal.
If you are wondering about your own burnout feelings it may be helpful to consider the following questions.
- Are you waking up feeling tired even after a good sleep? Does the thought of going to work make you feel exhausted?
- Are you noticing increased negativity or apathy in the way that you talk about your job, your organisation or your clients in the last few months?
- Do you feel satisfied that you are effective in your work? Have you dropped the ball in any ways that are unusual for you recently?
- Are you having trouble remembering things, or struggling to concentrate for long periods of time?
- Are you having feelings you would describe as burnout?
If you are seeing signs of burnout in your answers to these questions it is time to take action.
Make changes in your work
Burnout is not solely a problem with individual wellbeing. Rather the leading researcher (Maslach) in the area and her colleagues have identified seven factors of the workplace that increase the risk of burnout.
- Too much work and unclear role expectations.
- Not enough control over the work and resources needed to do the work.
- Insufficient reward.
- A lack of a sense of connection to other people in the workplace.
- An absence of fairness or not feeling valued.
- Conflicts in values between the individual and the organisation. Work that involves emotional complexity and a deep sense of connection to the work.
The first action to take if you are wondering about burnout is to assess these areas of your role or work. You may like to reflect on the following 6 questions:
- Is the amount of work I am expected to complete realistic? Do I know what my managers expectations of me are or am I guessing? Are these my expectations or my managers? What are my priorities? Are there elements of my role that can be outsourced or given to someone else? Am I creating good boundaries around when I am working and when I am not working?
- How much control do you have over when and how you work? How much control do you want to have over when and how your work? Where are the gaps? What resources do you need to do your job well?
- What makes you feel good about your job? Why do you do it? Do you pay attention to the compliments or gratitude that is expressed? How do you want to be rewarded or have your work appreciated?
- What are your values? What are the organisations values? What values are actually reflected in the actions of your team or work setting? Where are the gaps between your values and what you are able to express through your work and in your work setting?
- Do you feel like you have friends and connections in the workplace? Is there a sense of community? If you are a business owner do you have ways to connect and build community with other business owners?
- What makes you feel valued? How would you like that expressed? Where do you see unfairness in your workplace? What action can you take about that? What would help you sit with this inequity?
- What helps you manage the emotional load of your work? Are there any emotions that are not allowed in your workplace? Do you talk about the emotions that your work brings up in you? Do you need outside support (professional supervision) to manage the emotional complexity of your role?
Increase your coping strategies
There are particular personal characteristics that make some people more sensitive to burnout than others. These characteristics point us to particular areas that you can work on to help prevent burnout and increase your resilience.
- Develop your self-compassion to reduce the impact of high personal expectations and tendencies towards perfectionism. Practice talking to yourself like you would talk to your own best friend.
- Increase your understanding of emotions. Approach your emotions with curiosity, allow them to be there without having to take action on every passing feeling. Channel your empathy towards compassion, finding ways to alleviate the suffering of others.
- Work on your ability to take feedback from others. Often we are most sensitive to the judgements of others, when those judgements trigger the negative self-stories our own minds throw up. You can gain a little separation from those self-stories by giving them names and journaling about them.
- Know the activities and people from which you gain the most energy. Consider under what conditions you do your best work. Take action to schedule alone time or people time depending on your needs.
- Grow your understanding of stress. Begin to tune into where you feel stress in your body and mind and increase your repertoire of strategies that reduce your stress response. Ensure that you take time to fully relax on a regular basis.
Opening ourselves up to those feelings of burnout rather than just keeping pushing on, gives us the options to take action early on when it is easier to build our resilience quickly and bounce back to our usual feelings of engagement with our work. It is never too early to seek help from professionals that can support you with workplace negotiations or work with you to increase your coping strategies.
Christina is a Tāmaki Makaurau based psychologist. She combines her background in support and training with reflective and social learning strategies to form wise, well and kind helping professionals. You can join one of her networks of learning and support, or contact her to talk further about coaching, training and wellbeing support for teams and individuals.