• Helen Lickerish

Burn-out; what, why and how to deal with it.

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

For organisations:

Don't overlook the organizational costs of employee burnoutBurnout is strongly influenced by how employees are managedBurnout is preventable when you focus on the right factors

Organizations are facing an employee burnout crisis. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

We probably all know what stress feels like, but some of us will have suffered from its close cousin; burnout. Whilst there are many commonalities, they have differences in cause and solution. Each one needs a different approach to deal with it. So, what exactly, are the differences? Stress is the body’s way of responding to any kind of threat or demand., whether real or imagined. In certain situations, it can help you stay focused, energized and alert, and in emergency situations can give you the extra energy needed to defend yourself and escape danger. If the perceived threat goes on for too long though it will begin to impact your health and well-being. Burnout was first coined by Herbert J Freudenberger in 1974, in his book, The high cost of high achievement. “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, or way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected rewards”. Or “A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations”- by Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.

So, one of the differences between burn-out and stress is that stress can be a short-term response to an immediate pressure, whilst burn-out is a reaction to a long-term stress of a job or relationship. It is characterised by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced ability. When you are feeling unsatisfied from the situation for a substantial amount of time, and your output of energy is draining you without the reward of a sense of achievement, being appreciated or growing in skills or knowledge in some way, then you are heading for burnout.

Some signs are:

Alienation from work-related activities: Individuals experiencing burnout view their jobs as increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may grow cynical about their working conditions and the people they work with. They may also emotionally distance themselves and begin to feel numb about their work.

Physical symptoms: Chronic stress may lead to physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches or intestinal issues.

Emotional exhaustion: Burnout causes people to feel drained, unable to cope, and tired. They often lack energy to get their work done.

Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work—or in the home when someone's main job involves caring for family members. Individuals with burnout feel negative about tasks. They have difficulty concentrating and often lack creativity.

Some of these symptoms, such as lack of energy and feeling unable to cope, are similar to depression, and burn-out can lead to depression if not recognized and tackled; depression tends to become more of an overall encompassing state though, for example, feeling hopeless in general and loosing interest in much of life- not just work-related.

So why do people become burnt-out?

We have already established that the lack of appreciation, feelings of not progressing or not finding fulfillment in work are major causes.

According to a 2018 report by Gallup, employee burnout has five main causes:

1. Unreasonable time pressure. Employees who say they have enough time to do their work are 70 percent less likely to experience high burnout. Individuals who are not able to gain more time, such as paramedics and firefighters, are at a higher risk of burnout.

2. Lack of communication and support from a manager. Manager support offers a psychological buffer against stress. Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.

3. Lack of role clarity. Only 60 percent of workers know what is expected of them. When expectations are like moving targets, employees may become exhausted simply by trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.

4. Unmanageable workload. When a workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic employees will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout.

5. Unfair treatment. Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment may include things such as favouritism, unfair compensation, and mistreatment from a co-worker.

When employees do not trust their manager, teammates or executive leadership, it breaks the psychological bond that makes work meaningful.

How to tackle burn-out:

To help deal with the stress aspect of burn-out you will need to address

Relaxation- take time for yourself and doing the things you enjoy.- find ways to unwind.

Physical health (make sure you get enough exercise),

Dietary needs- healthy varied diet; eating regularly and taking vitamin and mineral supplements as needed ( seek advise of a nutritionist and /or GP if you are unsure)

Make sure you have time truly out of work- if you tend to go over things in your head when you are not at work then engage in more enjoyable pursuits that will help you re-focus your mind on them, such as a sport or hobby, or seeing friends,

Seriously consider taking up meditation if you don’t already have a practice- it positively affects the brain and body.

Revisit your sleeping habits and make any adjustments necessary such as not watching You Tube right up until bedtime.

Monitor your thinking patterns and seek some counsel on your perspective of the situation.

Although a holiday may help you to rest for a while and maybe regain a fresh perspective if there is a real underlying problem it will probably still be there when you get back.

Next you need to deal with the reasons that you are feeling the sense of despair, hopelessness, lethargy, long-term disappointment, disengagement or cynicism associated with the cause- the workplace (or maybe a relationship or lifestyle itself).

In a work situation talk to your manager, supervisor or HR department; letting them know how you feel and asking them for support to find ways to make your working environmental healthier and more productive for you (and quite possibly will assist others too).

If despite seeking support help is not forthcoming and nothing is changing then you may need to consider changing your job. Your well-being is more important than your role. Take the opportunity to look at why you aren't happy in your current position and seek to understand what work-roles, challenges, environment and support you would thrive in.

If you have a tendency to be a perfectionist, or pessimist or suffer from Imposter syndrome then you may want to tackle your own thinking patterns and challenge your belief systems, as they may well be contributing to your burn-out.

If you would like help working through these issues or find you aren’t able to cope well anymore you should see your GP and seek help with a professional such as a counsellor or coach to help you find your way through.

If you are from an organisation witnessing the effects of burn-out in your employees then watch here for our next post on how to prevent burn-out.


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