Causes of burnout and steps to avoid it

Table of Contents

Burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term, unresolvable job-related stress.

You may be experiencing burnout if it’s hard for you to wake up in the morning, you can’t concentrate at work, and you feel that you can’t get things done. Psychologists compare a person with burnout to a house after a fire: it looks fine on the outside but is damaged within.

Burnout occurs when a job or other occupation regularly requires more energy than you have. The stress concept of Hans Selye divides the stress reaction into stages of anxiety, resistance and restoration/exhaustion. So, burnout is the last stage. This is when our body has struggled for a long time with stress and finally lost.

The American psychiatrist and psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used the term “burnout” for the first time in 1974. He described the effects of stress and the desire for high ideals in volunteer staff. After 50 years of research, it turned out that anyone regularly experiencing high stress can burn out.

Common symptoms of burnout are low performance, exhaustion, and severe fatigue, which don’t go away after sleep or rest. Specific symptoms depend on your profession, personal characteristics, and other factors. For example, doctors and nurses are more likely to suffer from depersonalization — a cynical and insensitive attitude towards clients, which is a protective reaction. Office workers often reduce the importance of their own achievements and have depression and somatic diseases.

Is burnout real?

Yes. Burnout leads to problems with health, mood and brain disorders.

Although burnout is not considered a disease, it is officially recognized as a factor that interferes with well-being and is included in the ICD-10, a medical diagnostic guide used by the World Health Organization. Burnout increases your risk of heart disease, insomnia, mental disorders, and alcoholism.

Researchers from Sweden found that burnout leads to changes in areas of the brain responsible for attention and visual memory. This is one of the reasons why burnout leads to low performance.

In the study of the ability to control negative emotions in a group of patients with burnout, changes were found in the amygdala – the brain area responsible for emotions. Therefore, burnout makes it harder to experience stress and reduces control of negative emotions.

Our brain is not adapted to the long periods of stress required by the modern pace of life. The more and more intensely you work, the more urgent is the burnout issue.

The consequences of burnout cost the world $ 300 billion annually.

According to a ComPsych study, 62% of all workers in North America experience a high level of stress and fatigue. The UK Occupational Safety Authority reported that 1,510 people for every 100,000 workers experience work-related stress, depression, or anxiety. Each case leads to the loss of 29 working days. From 5 to 18% of workers suffer from burnout in Sweden, in the Netherlands – 16%. About 50% of doctors face burnout In Germany. According to polls in the USA, burnout is the reason for staff turnover in 20-50% of cases. The consequences of burnout cost the world $ 300 billion annually. This amounts to $1000 for every resident of the USA.

Moreover, the problem of burnout is getting more and more pressing. The Regus Group survey in the 2015 year of 22,000 businessmen from 100 countries showed that half of them were much closer to emotional burnout than five years ago.

Who is at greatest risk for burnout

Anyone who experiences chronic workplace or personal stress, a mismatch between expecta­tions and opportunit­ies, and requires a lot of resou­rces with a lack of support.

Christina Maslach, author of more than 50 scientific pa­pers about burnout, and her colleagues identified 6 risk factors of burnout: mismatch in workload, mismatch in control, lack of appropriate awards, losing a sense of positive connection with others in the workplace, perceived lack of fairness, and conflict between values.

So, you are at risk if:

  • you have demanding and emotional work. For example, you are a doctor, ps­ychologist, teacher, or employee of a chari­table foundation
  • you are overloaded. For example, “The Physician Work Life” study showed that the risk of burnout in female physicians increased by 12-15% for every 5 extra hours spent at work
  • your work doesn’t satisfy your expectations: insufficient reward, no appreciat­ion, lack of fairness
  • you don’t control your work and break schedule
  • you have bad relat­ionships with your colleag­ues and boss
  • you do someth­ing that is contrary to your per­sonal or religious values.

Additional risk factors of burnout include shi­ft work, lack of sunlight, monotonous work, noise, and overcrowding.

Life circumstances may also be risk factors.

You are at risk if:

  • you are responsible for someone – for example, taking care of a disabled child.
  • you don’t have time for rest and recovery
  • you don’t have enough support from friends and family. According to Christina Maslach’s studies, lonely people burn out more often than their married colleagues

There are also character traits that can accelerate burnout:

  • conscientiousness and perfectionism are often found in novice employees, so the risk of burnout is higher in the first five years of a career
  • pessimism, neuroticism, and low self-esteem
  • A-type personality: the desire to control everything and be the best

Freudenberger describes the “burning” type as “sympathetic, humane, soft, entrenched, idealistic, people-oriented, and at the same time unstable, introvert, obsessed (fanatical), ‘fiery.’ Often, this is a person who easily accepts other people’s opinions.”

Depression or post-traumatic stress disorder may be a reason for burnout in 20% of cases. The key point is not the presence of these factors, but their chronic impact on you and lack of proper detachment. For example, the probability of burnout is significantly less if your work is physical, but you get enough rest.

Signs of burnout

Pay attention to burnout symptoms and take our test.

Researcher of occupational burnout Christina Maslach suggests that burnout is a three-dimensional syndrome made up of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Here’s how you can define each of them.

When you are exhausted, you experience:

  • inability to concentrate. This is because our brain is not designed for long-term stress and simply turns off
  • procrastination: you oversleep and come to work late
  • more frequent colds, muscle and joint pain, and headaches
  • worse sleep and appetite
  • more frequent smoking and alcohol consumption
  • weight changes

Cynicism is a state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives. It is easy to see from:

  • loss of pleasure from work and other activities
  • irritability
  • avoiding communication. You try not to answer an email as long as possible or will not pick up the phone

A diminished sense of one’s own achievements is expressed in:

  • a sense of hopelessness and uselessness
  • rejection of new theories in work, low creativity
  • apathy
  • low productivity

It is interesting that women often feel emotionally exhausted and men are more likely to feel cynicism.

A lot of burnout symptoms are similar to depression. However, according to Canadian scientists, patients with depression have relatively high cortisol levels while those who are burnt out have low cortisol levels. When you’re burned out, your body is so exhausted it can no longer produce a stress response.

Also, in the initial stages of burnout, you may have bad thoughts related to the area that brings discomfort. Signs of depression are often negative thoughts about life in general, suicidal thoughts, and a desire to hurt yourself.

The most popular burnout questionnaires are Maslach Burnout Inventory, Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, Oldenburg Burnout Inventory. Find questionnaires in the “Act” tab in our app.

How to handle burnout

It depends on the degree of burnout. But the most important recommendation is to restore the balance between work and rest. Burnout doesn’t appear suddenly: it has several stages, each with different solutions.

If your survey results show a mild degree of burnout, it means that you are full of enthusiasm and still consider rest to be a waste of time. One sometimes feels that the sky’s the limit due to how the body mobilizes in response to stress. When your stress isn’t resolved, you feel overloaded. A simple reduction in workload can help you. Don’t be afraid to become the worst employee of the month. Studies have shown that performance is the same over a 50- or 70-hour work week.

The second degree of burnout exhibits the first signs of strain: fatigue, mistakes, and irritation. You will see it in your morning measurements in the form of lower energy and higher stress.

In this case, do things that reduce stress:

  • adjust your sleep schedule. Set an evening reminder to go to sleep earlier
  • do something that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for recovery and helps to reduce stress. It can be activated by tactile sensations: massage, sex, walking barefoot, floating
  • review a list of your burnout factors. Determine which are chronic problems for you and begin to solve them step by step
  • remember what you love in your work and focus on it
  • ask your boss about a new project and find additional training to improve your expertise.
  • don’t do multiple tasks at the same time. A Harvard Business Review article notes that every time you get distracted, it takes you 15-20 minutes to regain your concentration. It reduces your thinking and memory by 40 % and blocks your short term memory.
  • start practicing mindfulness. Even 10 minutes of meditation practice improves attention, and it helps you finish tasks faster.
  • say “no” to new tasks more often to avoid becoming overextended. Have a tasks calendar. Make sure to leave time for urgent and really important tasks

During its early stages, the process of burnout is easier to stop.

Results of burnout

You just can’t work at all.

Signs of the third level of burnout are crisis and exhaustion. In this state, you cannot force yourself to do anything and feel a great sense of guilt.

Symptoms of the exhaustion stage:

  • you feel hopeless, lose motivation, and even experience depression
  • you are annoyed by colleagues, customers, and relatives
  • you experience a personal crisis. Often in this period, people quit their job and start trying to find themselves
  • you often catch a cold and/or experience pain
  • the morning measurements of energy drop by 30-40%. Another consequence is feelings of guilt toward oneself, relatives, and colleagues, such that one can’t bring oneself to work

If you don’t take preventative measures you’ll lead yourself to professional death, the consequence of a complete burnout. As the mind tries to defend itself, the person may shut their eyes to the problem. If you’ve ever seen a teacher or a doctor who doesn’t look at you and responds to you with stock phrases, this is why.

Such a person doesn’t care about anything at that moment. And relatives, patients, and clients suffer. For example, the results of an American study of gynecologic oncologists showed that physicians with burnout are worse at working with patients and write 15% fewer scientific papers.

The business of a person suffering from burnout is also under threat. This person doesn’t worry about their business, takes wrong decisions, and can completely withdraw from their work.

How to deal with burnout

Recognize the problem and stop working: go on vacation or take days off at your own expense.

Burnout doesn’t pass on its own. Therefore, during the break you should:

  • change your situation: go to another country, live in a hotel, or get out of the city
  • disconnect the phone and internet
  • engage in physical and mental relaxation: massage, sex, floatation, meditation. This increases your chances of recovery by 23%
  • give the brain new impressions – e.g., horse riding or go-karting
  • spend as much time as possible with your family, tell them about your feelings
  • think about your life: what you want, what you love, what advantages does your work give you and what activities cause this burnout.

Talk to someone or write down everything that makes you feel guilty. Then you’ll see that most of the reasons are far-fetched.

Remember that our brain likes to play with us: we often see only mistakes and shortcomings, instead of noticing our efforts and success. It depends on you how much rest you need from work. Monitor your indicators of stress and energy – once they are restored, you can think about returning to work.

If everything is thoroughly awful, contact a psychologist about cognitive-behavioral therapy – or go to a psychiatrist for medication. Perhaps, only a complete change of activities will help.

How to avoid burnout

The most important thing is eliminating chronic stress issues in time. Our energy is a limited resource. So, don’t let your circumstances make you waste it.

If you get tired physically, take the following measures:

  • Make sleep your number one priority. Don’t let anyone wake you up. Find your optimal sleep schedule and duration. Researchers recommend sleeping at least 7 hours per day.
  • Make sure that you get enough energy and nutrients in your food.
  • Arrange breaks during the working day. Change your environment: have a dinner in a new place, do exercises, take a walk.
  • Delegate work and household tasks as much as possible: buy a vacuum cleaner robot, call a cleaner, and use a prepared meal delivery service.

Prevent chronic mental health problems:

  • Work only at the time when you are productive: determine the time when the energy reserves are maximal by measurements of the stress and energy during the day. Plan tasks that don’t require much mental energy for the rest of the day.
  • Turn off work notifications during your scheduled rest time. Let it be a rule: no work after 8 pm. The psychologist and author of books about productivity Ron Friedman says: “Now we carry the whole office in our pocket, therefore we remain involved in the work both psychologically and physiologically almost 24/7.”
  • Be active – even a half-hour walk will increase endorphin level and help you cope with stress.

Restore your emotional energy:

  • Don’t live at work: find a hobby, try something new.
  • Visit a psychologist to cope with emotionally hard work or express your feelings to your partner.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow recommends getting a little selfish. He believes that we can be happy only if we express ourselves and use our own potential. The burnout is inevitable if you spend the whole day doing work for others, if you do not have the opportunity for career development and do projects that are uninteresting to you.

Remember that burnout is just a kind of psychological defense and reaction to work and external factors that don’t work for you. Therefore, ask yourself every time: is what I’m doing really important, valuable, and useful for me?

How to prevent employee burnout

Don’t let the work become a monster draining their energy.

Here are some tips:

  • Track your team’s levels of stress and energy. You can do this with the Welltory app and the special corporate subscription to collect and analyze data about the wellbeing of your employees.
  • Set clear tasks to define areas of responsibility for your employees
  • Track workload. Don’t let employees be overloaded and send them on vacation if necessary. Teach them how to rest. For example, many big companies like Facebook and Google have separate rooms for meditation. Small companies like the University of Georgetown Hospital have special clubs for drawing, pottery, and dancing.
  • Switch their focus. If someone is tired of their routine, let this person do something new
  • Give appropriate praise and recognition for a job well done.
  • Try not to write to your employees during off hours.
  • Encourage lunchtime out of the office and short breaks during the working day. This will help your employees recover their energy. A short 10-minute break every hour is enough to make them highly productive during the whole working day.
  • Set an example for your employees. If you work without days off, then your employees will feel guilty as a result.

If you don’t see any changes in the productivity and general energy level of some employees, think about letting them go. It is likely that someone is a round peg in a square hole but afraid to admit it.

Welltory Team, 23 Dec. 2021

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