‘Burnout’ is the term used to describe a feeling of being unable to cope because of pressure of work.
Burnout is generally a state of long-term exhaustion and lack of interest in work, and tends to result from over-work over a long period of time, or from consistent and excessive stress.
Although burnout was originally thought to result directly from excess work and stress, doctors now think that there is much more likely to be an element of disposition involved.
In other words, some people are very unlikely to ever suffer from burnout, however much pressure they are placed under, while others may suffer from it without being placed under what most people would consider excess pressure.
What is Burnout?
There is no precise definition of ‘burnout’.
Even doctors do not have a precise clinical coding for burnout because its symptoms are often very like those of depression or other mental illnesses.
People considering themselves to be suffering from burnout tend to be very, very tired, and often find it difficult to make decisions.
They can struggle to find energy for anything. They may also suffer from other mental health problems such as depression but, even if they don’t reach a state of clinical mental illness, they may suffer from doubts about their ability or effectiveness, or low self-esteem.
Burnout and Stress
There is growing evidence that some level of stress is productive, and even necessary to many people to provide motivation. But excessive stress, especially over a prolonged period of time, is generally agreed to be bad for you.
There are physiological reasons for that. When you are under stress, your body produces stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, the ‘fight, fright or flight’ hormone. These hormones prepare your body for swift and immediate action, whether that is to run away or to fight something.
These hormones evolved, over millions of years, to cause a reaction. They lead to genuine physiological changes: increased heart rate, movement of blood to crucial parts of your body, loss of appetite. Having them constantly present in your bloodstream is therefore going to have some pretty ‘interesting’ effects on your long-term well-being.
You are going to be jumpy, nervous, and often over-emotional, and it’s very wearing on your body.
No wonder people suffering from long-term stress are tired and can become unwell.
Burnout left unattended can lead to ME/CFS which can become a lifelong neurological condition.
ME or CFS?
ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy) and CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) are names for a debilitating illness that affects millions of people worldwide.
MS/CFS sufferers can experience the feelings of burnout over prolonged periods of time. Symptoms include reduced concentration and poor memory, as well as physical effects such as aching muscles and severe headaches.
If you think that you, or someone you know, may have ME or CFS then it's important to seek medical help and be properly diagnosed. Although there is no cure, there are treatments that may help.
For more information see:
The ME Association (UK)
The first thing to remember is that once you are suffering from burnout, the nature of the condition means that it is very hard to do anything about it.
Part of the problem is that you are too tired to care about anything.
You are therefore really going to struggle to make the necessary changes to improve your life.
And while there is no doubt that there are individuals who are much more prone to burnout than others, even the most capable will eventually begin to struggle.
Lesson #1 Prevention is better than cure
Learn to recognise early on when you’re suffering from stress, and when that stress is starting to get a bit too much for you, and get yourself out of the situation.
Ask trusted friends and colleagues to help you to identify your ‘tells’, the ways that you can tell that you’re stressed. Some people snap and get irritable; others go quiet. Work out your tendency, make sure that you notice when it happens, and then do something about it.
Lesson #2 It’s up to you
Evidence suggests that the most stressful situations are those in which you feel that you are not in control. The answer to that is to try to take control of your own life, at least in small ways.
For example, try to work out what situations make you stressed and avoid them. You probably should not try to avoid them altogether, because a little stress, and being out of your ‘comfort zone’, is good for you. But it might be best not to take a job where those situations will make up the bulk of your working day. If you do end up in a job like that, and you start to find it very stressful, see if you can negotiate your way to an alternative.
If you can’t, you may need to look for another job.
Nobody else is going to do this for you because nobody else knows what it is that is making you stressed.
Lesson #3 Try to develop a good work-life balance
One very good way to avoid stress is to have a good work-life balance (and see our page on Work-Life Balance for more on this). If you take positive steps to spend less time at work, and more time with your family, or on personal interests, you will almost by definition become less stressed.
Work expands to fit the time.
Reduce the time, and you may well find that you still get the work done.
Case study: Going canoeing
Julie was the team leader of a very busy team in a government department. They had a lot of urgent work, often coming in late in the afternoon, and long-hours working was quite normal. The whole team, however, agreed that it was not a good thing to do, and all wanted to reduce the hours that they worked in line with departmental policy.
Julie was trying to leave at 5pm two days each week to go canoeing. She was struggling to do that, and usually only managed one.
After a chat with her manager, she decided to increase the number of days she was trying to leave early to three, instead of two. Although she and her manager agreed that this was counterintuitive, in fact, it had a very positive result.
She started leaving at 5pm at least twice a week. Her work did not suffer, and she was better able to cope with the pressure because she was both physically fitter and calmer.
Lesson #4 Do something active
Taking exercise is a very good way to reduce the risk of burnout. First, those who are physically fit are better able to cope with job demands anyway and, secondly, exercise releases endorphins, which help us to feel good. It is important however not to launch straight into a vigorous exercise routine - build up slowly and listen to your body.
See our page: The Importance of Exercise for more information.
Finally, if you do think that you, or someone you know, may be suffering from burnout, it’s important to reach out to others and seek help.
It may feel like nothing is ever going to improve, but asking for help is the first step to getting it. You shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk to your doctor and/or manager about how you feel.
Don’t feel helpless, ask for help.