What is burnout?
The phenomenon of burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization in 2019. The WHO class it as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is identified by three main aspects: firstly, exhaustion; secondly, feeling mentally “distant” from one’s job (including feeling cynical or negative towards work); and thirdly, reduced work performance.
Burnout is officially a medical condition and the WHO has classified it as an occupational phenomenon.
The WHO’s recognition followed many years of research by academics and medics. Indeed, burnout was first described as such in the 1970s by German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who at the time worked at a clinic for rough sleepers and those with substance misuse problems in New York. He coined the term not to describe the clinic’s users, but the volunteers that worked there. This was after he noticed that the exhaustion of their work was leading, in many cases, to a particular state of demotivation and cynicism.
Freudenberger would later co-author ‘The 12 Stages of Burnout’ with fellow psychologist Gail North, setting out the various phases of the phenomenon. Their stages begin with a compulsion to prove oneself and progress through neglecting one’s own needs (such as for sleep and friendship) and displacing conflicts, before ultimately culminating in depression.
What causes burnout?
Irish psychotherapist Siobhán Murray, author of ‘The Burnout Solution’, explains that burnout is caused by lengthy and continuous exposure to stress. Of course, some stress is healthy, and indeed a key part of positive motivation. But, says Murray, “It’s when we’re continually exposed to stress and anxiety, that we’re not letting go, that it starts to turn into burnout.”
Identifying the signs
Murray also explains that it is important to look out for uncharacteristic changes in your behavior, such as an increased reliance on sugar to get through the day or on alcohol to sleep. Tiredness that goes beyond normal levels can also be a sign: for example, if you remain tired even after having had a decent sleep, or if you are regularly feeling as tired at 10am as you should be at 10pm.
Christina Maslach, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent a lifetime researching job burnout and is the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). This is an attempt to provide a scientific measure of burnout and considers the classic symptoms like cynicism and exhaustion.
And psychotherapist Jacky Francis Walker warns us to look out for feeling “emotionally numbed or mentally distant” – a sign of someone on the brink of burnout. Another sign is feeling that you are making basic mistakes or that your work performance is sliding: “People say ‘but this isn’t me!’, ‘I’m not like this’, ‘I can usually do x, y, and z’”, explains Walker. “But obviously if they are in a state of physical depletion, then they aren’t in their normal range of capabilities”.
As with any issue related to mental well-being or even health in general, it’s better to address things early on. In extreme cases, burnout can lead to more serious problems like depression.
Of course, burnout is just one of a range of issues that can affect people at work. Feelings of cynicism or negativity could just mean that you are in the wrong job for you. Ask yourself if you ever felt positive about your job, and where and when that changed?
Dealing with burnout could involve a dramatic step such as moving jobs, or smaller changes to your life and working patterns to help you find space to recharge and bring positivity back. Either way, look out for the signs of burnout and take steps to tackle it before it starts to feel out of control.