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, unresolved 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.

Burnout occurs when a job or a project regularly requires more energy than you have. The stress concept of Hans Selye divides the stress reaction into stages of anxiety, resistance, and exhaustion. Burnout occurs in this last stage when your body has struggled with stress for a long time and finally loses the fight.

The American psychiatrist and psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used the term “burnout” for the first time in 1974. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. 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 patients, which is a protective reaction. Office workers often downplay the importance of their achievements, which can take a toll on their mental health.

Is burnout a real problem?

Although burnout isn’t classified as a disease, it is officially recognized as a factor that interferes with well-being and can impact your physical and mental health. Burnout is likely to be associated with heart diseaseinsomniamental disorders, and high alcohol consumption. Plus, researchers Armita Golkar et al. found that burnout affects the ability to down-regulate negative emotions and cope with stress. You can check out the full 2014 paper in the Plos One journal. 

Workplace burnout is common across the globe. According to Deloitte’s 2015 survey of 1,000 full-time corporate professionals in the US, 77% of employees had experienced burnout in their current job. In Germany, out of 1311 surgeons, around 50% meet the criteria for burnout. This finding was made by Jens Klein and his team in 2010 and published in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care.

Who is at risk of job burnout?

Anyone experiencing chronic workplace or personal stress, a mismatch between expecta­tions and opportunit­ies, or uses up their internal resources faster than they can be replenished.  

Christina Maslach, who has authored more than 50 research pa­pers about burnout, and her colleagues identified 6 risk factors of burnout: excessive workload, an inability to control their workflow or ask for needed resources, lack of appropriate rewards, losing a sense of positive connection with co-workers, perceived lack of fairness, and conflict between values. Check out the 2001 paper in the Annual Review of Psychology journal for more details. 

You are at risk if:

  • You have emotionally demanding work. For example, if you are a doctor, social worker, or teacher.
  • You are overloaded. One study found that female physicians’ burnout risk increases by 12-15% for every 5 additional hours spent at work per week. The 2000 study was conducted by researchers Julia McMurray et al. and published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
  • Your work doesn’t meet your expectations: insufficient reward, no appreciat­ion, or lack of fairness.
  • You don’t control your work and break schedule.
  • You have bad relat­ionships with your colleag­ues and boss.
  • You do someth­ing contrary to your per­sonal or religious values.

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

Who is at risk of job burnout?

Work is not the only cause of burnout. Life circumstances may also be risk factors. You are at risk if:

  • You are responsible for someone – for example, being a primary caregiver
  • You don’t have time for rest and recovery
  • You don’t have a strong support network, like friends or family 

There are also character traits that can accelerate burnout:

  • conscientiousness and perfectionism 
  • pessimism, neuroticism, and low self-esteem
  • A-type personality: the desire to control everything and be the best

How do I know I'm burning out?​

Pay attention to burnout symptoms and take the questionnaire “Are you at risk of burnout?” in the Welltory app.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a three-dimensional syndrome characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Here’s how you can define each of them.

 When exhausted, you experience:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Procrastination
  • More frequent headaches and pains
  • Worse sleep and appetite
  • Weight changes

Cynicism is expressed by: 

  • A general distrust of others’ motives
  • Feeling detached from your projects
  • Avoiding communication with colleagues or customers

Efficacy is:

  • A diminished sense of one’s achievements 
  • A sense of hopelessness and uselessness
  • A loss of creativity
  • Apathy
  • Low productivity

I'm showing signs of burnout. What should I do?

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.

Stage 1

During its early stages, the process of burnout is easier to stop. If your survey results show a mild degree of burnout, reducing your workload will help.

Stage 2

If you’re experiencing more acute burnout, you’re likely experiencing fatigue and irritation and making mistakes. This shows up in your HRV measurements in Welltory in the form of lower energy and higher stress levels. 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, or walking barefoot in the grass.
    • Review a list of your burnout factors.
    • Remember what you love in your work and focus on that.
    • Don’t multitask.
    • Say “no” to new tasks more often to avoid becoming overextended. Have a task calendar and prioritize the most urgent and important ones.

Stage 3

The most critical stage of burnout is when you can’t work at all. Essentially, you are in crisis and exhaustion mode. 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. People often quit their job and set out to find themselves during this period.
  • You often catch a cold or experience pain.
  • Another consequence is feelings of guilt toward oneself, relatives, and colleagues, such that one can’t bring oneself to work.

At this point, you need a real break. Go on vacation or take days off to:

  • Change your situation: visit another city or country, or get out into nature.
  • Disconnect from the phone and internet.
  • Engage in physical relaxation like getting a massage. Relaxation reduces stress levels by 23% and increases your chances of recovery.
  • Try meditation. It can be a great way to relieve stress and tension. 
  • Give the brain new impressions – try horse riding or go-karting
  • Spend as much time as possible with your friends and family. Talk to them about how you’re feeling.
  • Think about your life: what you want, love, and what advantages your work gives you.
  • Take some time to assess what activities caused this burnout.

 

Take regular HRV measurements in Welltory. The Stress, Energy, and Health scores will give you insights into how well your body is recovering from burnout. 

Burnout can seriously impact your quality of life, but you don’t have to face it alone. If you would like additional help and resources, you can reach out to a psychologist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy

Can I avoid burnout entirely?

Yes, you can. The most important thing is eliminating chronic stress in time. Remember that your energy is a limited resource. 

If you get tired physically, take the following measures:

 

  • Make sleep your number one priority. 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 from your food.
  • Arrange breaks during the working day and use that time to change your environment: have lunch in a new place, exercise, or take a walk.
  • Delegate work and household tasks if you can: ask a friend to help, buy a vacuum cleaner robot, call a cleaner, or use a prepared meal delivery service.

To prevent mental fatigue:

  • Work only at the time when you are productive. Take regular HRV measurements in Welltory to find out when your energy levels are at their peak. Try to plan more challenging tasks for when your energy is high, and save the easier ones for times when your energy is waning.
  • Turn off work notifications during your scheduled rest time. Let it be a rule: no work after 8 pm.
  • Be active – even a half-hour walk will increase endorphin levels and help you cope with stress.
  •  

Restore your emotional energy:

  • Don’t make work your life: find a hobby, try something new
  • Visit a psychologist to cope with emotionally hard work
  • Talk about your feelings with a loved one

 

Burnout can be a psychological defense and reaction to your job and other external factors that don’t work for you. When you’re starting to feel stressed, ask yourself: is what I’m doing meaningful, valuable, and useful for me?

Welltory Team, upd. on 16 Sept. 2022

Share on twitter
Share on facebook

Learn more

How to restore the energy

77% of our users experience fatigue, and the main reason is lack balance between stress and recovery. Learn to manage your energy and avoid fatigue.

How to manage stress

85% of us experience stress on a daily basis. Find out is stress always bad, what causes it and how to avoid chronic stress.