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Burnout: Signs, symptoms and how to avoid it

Woman at her desk looking burnt out

Healthy Food Guide founding editor Niki Bezzant takes a look at what burnout is and talks to experts to find out how you can spot the signs and symptoms and what to do to avoid burning out.

What is burnout?

The term ‘burnout’ was coined in the 1970s by US psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe what happened to people under severe stress and ‘high ideals’ in the helping professions, such as doctors and nurses, who became ‘burned out’ as a result of overwork and stress – feeling exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.

The World Health Organization recognises burnout not as a medical condition, but as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ which it defines as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

The WHO says burnout is characterised by:

  • 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

Despite this definition putting burnout clearly in the realm of the workplace, research has found that burnout can affect anyone, from those in high-pressure careers to parents caring for children.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more instances of burnout have been reported in certain professions, including academia and, unsurprisingly, healthcare workers. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, women report feeling burnout symptoms more than men.

How do I know if I’m heading for burnout?

Burnout is not something that happens suddenly. It creeps up over time, as stress builds. AUT Faculty of Business Economics and Law associate professor Rachel Morrison’s work is focused on how work affects wellbeing. Dr Morrison offers some ways stress might start to affect us negatively:

“There are physical long-term stress responses. You’ve got things like the somatic disorders: digestion problems and headaches. Maybe you’re not sleeping well. There might be unforced errors at work; you’re more likely to make mistakes.”

Stress can have mental health effects, too, such as depression and anxiety. And it can show up as smaller behavioural things; as simple as being rude to co-workers or other types of micro-aggression.

“It’s not yelling at people,” Dr Morrison says. “It’s not slapping someone. It’s things like talking badly behind their back or being a bit rude or walking away mid conversation…those are the types of things that I think become more prevalent when people are stressed. They’re also going to happen if people want to conserve their resources and are trying to not become overwhelmed”.

According to Germany’s Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, being burnt out can mean we don’t feel re-charged after weekends or holidays and, over time, we lose the ability to feel for, and connected to, the people we interact with.

We may also feel frustrated or judgmental; no longer feel competent or successful; or we may lose the ability to feel a sense of reward from our work. We might find ourselves doing the bare minimum to get by.

What can burnout lead to?

At its extreme, burnout can mean we lose the ability to do our work. It can lead to depression and contribute to long-term health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

How can we prevent burnout?

Preventing burnout starts with self-care. Health psychologist Fiona Crichton says looking after ourselves is really important to get through stressful situations – like those many of us still face now in pandemic times.

“Things like diet, exercise, managing stress and sleep are the things we need to keep ourselves not just surviving, but thriving”, Dr Crichton says.

“And they’re the things that we let go in our lives. They’re often the things we don’t prioritise.”

She suggests practising putting small, good things into our day.

“My philosophy is that we do things every day that ‘fill us up’. It doesn’t matter where we are in our lives; the tiny things and small steps can really make a difference.”

Small steps to help avoid burnout

1 Have fun

“Make sure that you do something to have fun every day”, says Chrichton. It can be a small thing, as simple as having a laugh. “Laughing and the anticipation of laughing starts endorphins; even thinking that we’re going to laugh later on in the day is important”.

2 Move your body

“When you move a little bit – and it doesn’t have to be a ridiculous amount of exercise – in terms of mood and stress, a tiny amount of exercise, a tiny amount of movement, has a huge impact on mood.”

3 Connect with others

“If we prioritise connection with our community or with the people we love, then all of the evidence is that we will be better able to manage stress that’s coming our way”.

4 Ask for help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t just suck it up; reach out and seek help before it gets too much. “We used to wear busyness as a badge of honour”, Dr Chrichton says. “We used to talk about how stressed we are as though that’s a good thing. And actually what the science shows us is: that is not helpful.”

According to Dr Chrichton, we’re far more likely to be able to cope when we do have stress, whether it’s at work or elsewhere. “If we understand what we need to top ourselves up and we start prioritising that in our lives; if we say, what do I need to actually function well and feel good?”

We need to let go of unrealistic expectations about life and work, too, she says.

“Forget the lies around the idea that we have to be happy all the time, and that everything’s always going to be fabulous. It’s not always going to be fabulous. We’re going to have stressors as part of being human, but we will get through it.”

We can do that, Dr Chrichton says, by resolving that ‘every day we’re going to do something that brings us closer to the people that we like; that we look for the things that we care about, the things with meaning and purpose. Those are the things that will help us deal with all of the other parts of our lives, including dealing with stress, which is absolutely part of being a human being.’

Bottom line

Burnout is a syndrome of symptoms caused by extreme, long-term stress.

Burnout can have serious consequences if it’s not treated.

Burnout symptoms can be varied and include physical, psychological and behavioural signs that we’re not coping. Burnout is more than just being stressed, and is distinct from depression.

We can prevent burnout by simple self-care measures to build our resilience and manage stress when it comes along.

First published: May 2021

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