Burnout can lead to severe mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.
Do you often feel that you don’t enjoy your job as much as you once did? Are you experiencing a type of mental and physical exhaustion that is taking the happiness away from your interactions with your family members and your friends?
Being continuously exposed to highly stressful situations can lead to this stress condition called burnout. This could be due to working very long hours, or caring for an ill family member, or continuously worrying about the future.
Burnout is not very easy to identify and can easily be confused with fatigue or exhaustion. Therefore, it’s important to learn about the signs and symptoms of burnout and the different coping strategies that can help.
So, what is burnout?
The term burnout was first coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. It refers to a severe stress condition that can lead to severe physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
Unlike ordinary fatigue, burnout can make it extremely challenging for individuals to cope with stress and to go on managing their day-to-day responsibilities. They often feel like they cannot give anymore and may feel hopeless and develop a pessimistic outlook towards life, making getting out of bed each morning a struggle.
Burnout happens gradually, and you might not notice the symptoms immediately. However, once it goes into full effect, it can impact your ability to lead a normal, functional life. If left untreated, burnout can also lead to serious physical and psychological illnesses such as depression, diabetes and heart disease.
Who is most likely to experience burnout?
People who are continually exposed to high levels of stress, in their jobs or at home or both, can experience burnout. Usually, professionals with helping jobs such as first responders, doctors and nurses, are especially vulnerable.
During the Covid-19 pandemic for instance, burnout amongst healthcare workers has been identified as an occupational hazard in healthcare. Burnout has increased to levels that actually pose a threat to maintaining a functional and safe healthcare workforce. These elevated levels of burnout are expected to persist long after the end of the pandemic.
Burnout due to Covid-19 has also created a cycle of understaffing, worsening the already tougher-than-usual work conditions.
But burnout is not only career-induced, people caring for children or the sickly, often also experience this type of extreme exhaustion. As such, studies have shown that mothers and fathers, especially those who have stressful jobs outside the home as well, can experience burnout just like doctors and business executives.
Other people at a higher risk of experiencing burnout are “Type A” personalities. This refers to people with personality characteristics that drive perfectionism and trying to be in control.
What are the most common signs of burnout?
If you’re worried that you may be experiencing burnout but you’re not sure of the symptoms or signs here are a few:
- You feel completely exhausted. Physical and emotional exhaustion to the point of depletion is the biggest sign of burnout. The physical symptoms that you might be experiencing include headaches, stomach aches, changes in appetite, and/or changes in sleeping patterns.
- You lack motivation. Another key sign of burnout is not feeling like you have the motivation to get any work done, or even go to work in the first place. The very thought of the work that is piling up waiting for you will start filling you with dread. This can cause negative feelings to surface about the specific tasks that you were assigned to do, as well as the organization that you work for. Burnout can make you lose sight of yourself and your goals.
- You just want to be alone. Individuals experiencing burnout feel overwhelmed to the point where they may stop socializing and confiding in friends, family members, and co-workers. As such, they begin to self-isolate. This can make it difficult to maintain relationships with those closest to them.
- You’re easily irritated. Burnout also causes irritability, meaning it becomes easier for people to lose their cool at work with their co-workers or with their friends or family members. Normal daily stressors, such as preparing for a meeting, driving the kids to school, or making dinner, for example, can start to feel unsurmountable, especially if things don’t go exactly as planned.
- You find it difficult to make decisions. People experiencing burnout can have difficulty making decisions. This is due to the fact that decision making often requires a high level of cognitive work that includes weighing the costs and benefits of the options in front of you. Burnout can make this calculation a daunting task.
- You fall sick much more than usual. Much like other long-term stress conditions, burnout can also lower your immune system and make you much more susceptible to illnesses such as the flu, insomnia, and other mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety.
How can you prevent burnout?
The first step to reversing burnout or preventing its onset and/or development, is finding the source of stress. Sometimes it may be difficult to know immediately what needs to be changed but exploring the different potential contributing factors and/or sources of stress in your life can help.
Sometimes stress may seem unavoidable, but burnout is definitely preventable. There are a number of things that can help you fight it off, including making time for daily exercise, eating a balance and healthy diet, and practicing good sleep habits. By making self-care a part of your daily routine, burnout can be avoided.
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These can be small changes to your day like going out for a walk, talking to a friend, or unwinding in front of the TV to watch an episode of your favorite show. Setting healthy boundaries or limits on the time you give to certain tasks or certain people can also help manage the stress. This involves learning to say no in order to prioritize yourself.
While confronting burnout is not easy, when it begins taking a toll on your mental health, personal relationships, and overall quality of life, it is important to seek professional guidance. Speaking to a therapist can help you identify the source of your stress and explore the coping methods that best work for you.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].