“Burnout” is a term which relates to symptomatic distress we may experience after being in stressful circumstances associated with persistent demands placed on us. Burnout occurs when the demands on us outstrip our resources including strategies for coping. For example, we may become “burnt out” after a period of excessive work demands, especially when there has been limited time for oneself. We may feel overwhelmed and wish for more time or more support. We may experience ourselves and others as falling short of expectations. This can be combined with a range of symptoms associated with increased stress described below.
Before considering symptoms of burnout it is worth considering a number of issues related to stress in general. First of all, stress is universal. Stress relates to our level of arousal. Any form of effort, challenge or adjustment may increase our level of arousal. Therefore stress is part of living: we would be inert without it. Stress is not all bad. With very low stress our arousal is very low so we are not likely to be at all productive. As our arousal level increases from a low point our performance is also likely to improve and we are likely to be the more productive and effective at achieving various goals. This may help one’s achievement on the sporting field, during an examination or completing a number of physical tasks in a particular period of time. However, as our arousal level increases beyond a certain point we will no longer benefit from improved performance: in fact our performance will decline. If our arousal level then increases even further we can become very unproductive as a result of excessive stress.
We vary in the level of stress which we can tolerate before it has an unhealthy impact on us. It is important for us to be able to recognize signs which may indicate undue levels of stress so that we can seek to reduce demands on us or bolster our resources, including strategies for coping. We each have our own characteristic “stress signature”, or typical pattern of symptoms we might experience when our stress levels are increasing up to a mild, moderate, and then severe level. It is especially helpful to recognize early signs of burnout as useful signals to note and then plan to make stress-reducing adjustments in one’s activities and lifestyle. If burnout reactions become more severe and persist they are at risk of developing into anxiety or depressive disorders.
Burnout symptoms include physical, emotional, mental, relational and spiritual symptoms. Physical symptoms can include muscle tension, headaches, other aches and pains, poor sleep, fatigue, restlessness, teeth grinding, changing appetite, rashes, stomach complaints, and susceptibility to colds and other illnesses. Emotional symptoms include anxiety and worry, frustration, irritability, depressed moods, a sense of discouragement and experiencing little joy. Mental symptoms may include forgetfulness and poor concentration, boredom, confusion, negative self-talk, spacing out, dulled senses and lower productivity. Relational symptoms may include increased withdrawal and isolation, intolerance of others, fewer social contacts, and loneliness, distrust, resentment, nagging, arguments and reduced intimacy. Spiritual symptoms may include feelings of emptiness and loss of meaning, loss of direction, cynicism, martyrdom, apathy, being unforgiving or feeling a need to prove oneself.
When addressing stress and burnout we might best aim to find a balance in our priorities so that we can be effective in what we set out to achieve yet still allow room for our own rest, recuperation and leisure as well as time with friends and loved ones. Our response to burnout may prove to be helpful or unhelpful. Unhelpful responses may include worrying, increased use of alcohol or cigarettes, poor eating habits, continuing to work too hard, ignoring the problem (perhaps thinking there is not enough time to address it), blaming oneself or others, neglecting relationships and becoming more avoidant or isolated. Helpful strategies include recognizing the symptoms as signs of persistently increased stress and committing to do something about it. It is important to be forgiving of oneself for having developed such stress reactions in the first place. Specific strategies may involve time management and problem-solving techniques, seeking social support, practising relaxation or meditation techniques, physical exercise, using humour, giving to oneself (including engaging in positive self-talk), engaging in other restful activities or doing anything that one experiences as “recharging one’s batteries”. Other issues to consider in a work setting are containing our availability and responsiveness to e-mails and phone calls and other demands on our time.
For health professionals and others in caring roles it can be important to find a balance in aiming for helping versus “rescuing” our clients, meaning being careful not to take excessive responsibility for others, especially in areas where they might take responsibility for themselves. When in challenging supportive roles it is generally also important to build supports around oneself. It can be of particular benefit to develop some kind of ritual or transition after work to help let go of a demanding work role at the end of the day. Sometimes the question is put, “Who cares for the carers?” Ultimately it is up to carers to find ways at times of putting themselves first. It may be relevant to consider the analogy of using an oxygen mask on a plane. Parents are commonly advised in case of emergency to put on their own oxygen mask before they fit the mask on their children. We are likely to be of less benefit to others in challenging circumstances if we have not taken care of our own health and well-being.
Other strategies from the field of positive psychology include drawing on one’s signature character strengths to address current challenges (see podcast on character strengths in Podcast section of this website) and exploring ways of inducing positive emotions including gratitude faith, love, hope joy, forgiveness and compassion. When we experience such positive emotions in our everyday lives this helps counter some of the lingering negative effects of stress. One such positive psychology exercise includes writing down three things each day for which we have felt grateful. These can be small and simple things such as enjoying a joke with a friend or appreciating some support from others or a skill one relied on to complete a task that day.
When considering burnout at work it is relevant to consider job satisfaction. A degree of job satisfaction is likely to depend on the range of aspects of work which we find uplifting relative to those aspects which we experience as unpleasant or draining. It helps to enhance our awareness of what we find positive compared to what we dislike. Professor Martin Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness” model described in the aforementioned podcast outlines strategies to help us become more aware of our signature character strengths which we may draw on at work.
In summary, burnout occurs when the demands on us outstrip our resources. Some level of stress is a universal part of living. If we recognize from our characteristic signs of escalating stress (or “stress signature”) that our wellbeing is suffering, we can consider a range of practical and helpful strategies to address this. Exploring stress management strategies is an exercise in experimenting and learning what works best for each of us as an individual.