What exactly is burnout?
Stress and burnout are not the same things. It’s completely normal to feel stressed at work from time to time, but this stress is typically situational and related to a specific stimulus, such as a difficult project or an upcoming deadline. When this stress accumulates over a long period of time and becomes all-consuming, that is when we refer to it as burnout.
According to WHO, burnout is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy
While the stressors that typically trigger burnout differ across occupations, they all tend to relate to the demanding and unrelenting nature of a job, combined with a lack of resources and support.
What causes mental burnout?
Well, that’s the thing. It doesn’t just happen. Nobody wakes up one morning to find they suddenly 'have' burnout, unlike how a headache can just happen. Burnout is a chronic condition, the result of stress building up over time. It’s like a pipe that’s slowly dripping, so you don’t notice the damage, rather than a pipe that bursts out of the blue. And also unlike a headache, it doesn’t necessarily 'go away' with time. It requires you to seriously assess the amount of stress in your life, and actively make changes.
Of course, as we are all different in our capacity to deal with stress, some people are innately more susceptible to burnout than others. For instance, Type A personalities and those people who like feeling in control are shown to experience higher rates of stress at work. Additionally, workers who believe they do not have the right resources to cope with their workload, such as an unsupportive workplace, are more likely to succumb to stress-related conditions. For this reason, burnout is as much a workplace's responsibility as it is an individual's.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Because stress and burnout exist along a continuum, it can be hard to differentiate between the two. The difference can be a matter of degree, which is why it’s so important that we are all in tune with how we are feeling, and able to recognise when work stresses have gone beyond situational to become a malicious part of our everyday lives. Thankfully, our bodies and minds do give us warnings.
Common symptoms of burnout include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention
- Physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Increased irritability
- Lack of productivity and poor performance
According to Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, “Burnout is an insidious creature that creeps up on you as you're living your busy life.” Burnout doesn’t discriminate, and we are all capable of falling victim. As such, we all need to take steps now to ensure everyday work stress doesn’t evolve into mental burnout. After all, prevention is always preferable to a cure.