Left unchecked, burnout can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, relationships and job performance. Here’s how to recognise – and avoid – it.
- Burnout is a result of a prolonged attempt to protect oneself from emotional and interpersonal stressors.
- Left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, relationships and job performance.
- While stress can be motivating and inspiring, burnout makes you less productive and less effective.
- The most common symptoms of burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion and a drop in productivity.
- Burnout can be overcome by making time daily for play, connecting with others and carving out downtime.
You used to love your career, but the pleasure is gone. You have weeks of unused leave and you’re too busy to spend time with family and friends. And you’re So. Damn. Tired.
Does this sound like you? If so, you could well be suffering from a classic case of burnout. In an age where we wear busyness like a badge of honour, burnout may be the malaise that comes to define the millennium. Left unchecked, burnout can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, relationships and job performance. But, in order to catch burnout and combat it early, it’s important to know what to look out for.
The psychology of burnout
Burnout is a consequence of a person’s prolonged attempts to protect themselves from emotional and interpersonal stressors. According to American social psychologist Professor Christina Maslach, who developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout is characterised by three main dimensions: the feeling of emotional exhaustion (which includes physical and mental exhaustion), a sense of cynicism (feeling less caring about the people you work with; psychologists sometimes use the word ‘depersonalisation’ for this dimension), and a low sense of personal accomplishment (feeling like you can’t be effective or your work doesn’t matter).
Burnout vs stress
Burnout is not the same as stress. While stress is a state of strain or tension, burnout is a state in which you act and feel differently, and this different way of acting and feeling happens in very distinct patterns. While stress is a normal and even necessary part of life, it isn’t always bad because it isn’t always destructive. Many people find stress to be motivating and inspiring. In contrast, burnout makes you less productive and less effective. Stress is a fact of life. Burnout may be common, but it certainly isn’t necessary.
The symptoms of burnout
“You don’t wake up one morning and all of a sudden ‘have burnout.’ Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognise,” says psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout.
Though the symptoms of burnout vary for different people, these, according to Dr Bourg Carter, are the the most common:
- Signs of physical exhaustion. These can include chronic fatigue, insomnia, constantly falling ill, and weight gain or loss of appetite.
- Signs of emotional exhaustion. These may manifest themselves as anxiety, depression, and anger issues.
- A drop in productivity. Your overworked brain starts forgetting important tasks on a regular basis. That, along with an inability to concentrate and pay attention, generally leads to a vicious cycle, where the workload only gets bigger. At times, it seems that as hard as you try, you can’t climb out from under the pile.
The practices for overcoming burnout are much the same as those for preventing it. According to Professor Maslach, this means making sure your daily life includes the following:
- Play. This involves stimulating the brain in novel and diverse ways. It could mean embracing a hobby that has nothing to do with the tasks you perform at work.
- Others. Having positive, meaningful social connections is also a proven way to keep stress levels down. Be it friends or extended family, everyone needs a ‘village’ of sorts.
- Downtime. This doesn’t mean a holiday. Though unplugging for a few days or weeks is certainly helpful, our brain needs to unwind and recharge on a daily basis. This may mean taking a lunch break instead of gulping down your sandwich in front of the keyboard, going for a short walk in the evening, or even taking a shower and reading a book instead of spending the last few moments of the day surfing the web.
Find out more about the inner-workings of the brain by studying a psychology course at SACAP. Many of the courses can be pursued on a part-time or full-time basis, and students also have the option of studying online. Some of the programmes on offer include the 4-year Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych) degree, and the 1-year Higher Certificate in Counselling and Communication Skills. For more information, enquire now.