Are you exhausted all the time, feeling cynical towards your work responsibilities and find the demands of your job overwhelming? You could be suffering from burnout – and you might be the last person to know it.
The World Health Organisation has now officially recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
It is characterised by feelings of exhaustion, negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and poor performance.
However, it can be hard for people to understand what’s wrong.
“I think it’s quite difficult to identify your own signs of burnout. People close to you, or managers, are very good at identifying it from the other side,” says Dr Rachel Morris, a GP who, over 15 years, saw many patients who were ill because of workplace stress.
She says patients suffering from burnout may become unsure of themselves, feel cynical, hopeless or detached, stop eating properly, and feel continually tired. They may also feel angry or resentful about work, or towards colleagues and friends.
“When people start going off sick from work with back pain, gastroenteritis or migraines, often they might be burnt out,” says Dr Morris.
What is wrong with me?
If you think you might be suffering from burnout, ask yourself the following questions:
- Has anyone close to you asked you to cut down on your work?
- In recent months, have you become angry or resentful about your work or about colleagues, clients or patients?
- Do you feel guilty that you are not spending enough time with your friends, family or even yourself?
- Do you find yourself becoming increasingly emotional, for example crying, getting angry, shouting, or feeling tense for no obvious reason?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, it might be time for change. They were devised for the UK Practitioner Health Programme and are a good starting point for all workers to identify if they are at risk of burning out.
Burnout builds up over quite a long period of time, maybe over six to 18 months.
Dr Jacky Francis Walker is a psychotherapist and the author of The Burnout Bible. She specialises in treating patients with burnout.
“Typically, people will come and they will be bewildered about why they suddenly can’t do what they used to be able to do. All of a sudden it’s like they’ve lost their magic,” she says.
People might find themselves in ‘survival mode’, where they don’t have the same kind of creative or expressive range they had before.
Burnout is significantly different from stress, says Dr Walker.
“Stress, simply put, is when the demands on you are greater than the resources you have to bring to the situation. These resources can be psychological, resilience and resources of time and capability.”
Human beings need a little bit of pressure to perform. But once we reach peak performance and peak pressure, and the pressure keeps on increasing, the performance starts to drop.
Not just for high-flyers
There’s a myth that burnout only affects either career high-flyers, or that someone has to dislike what they do – but that is not the case, says Dr Morris.
“People think you only burn out if you hate your job, but that’s not true. I personally have seen a lot of stress amongst teachers, doctors, lawyers, city traders, accountants, solicitors. People who are generally high-achievers and perfectionists might suffer more, as these people tend to get a lot of value from their work identity.”
And burnout doesn’t only affect people at work – those with caring responsibilities in the home can also be severely affected.
“Caring for children or elderly relatives – sometimes with disabilities – are people who could be classified as being severely burnt out. These patients are completely exhausted, and might experience ‘compassion fatigue’ which implies a lack of empathy,” says Dr Walker.
Burnout is often seen as something to be ashamed of.
“There is quite a stigma around admitting to burn out,” says Dr Walker.
“A lot of people think, ‘If I can’t get back up, there’s something wrong with me. I’m not up to it. I’m weak. I can’t handle it.’”
Not enough hours in a day
Dr Rachel Morris has developed a programme to help with employees’ well-being.
“There are things we can all do to reduce our own risk of burnout,” she says. “One is to boost our levels of resilience. This means we’re able to respond to stress in a healthy way and can bounce back after challenges and grow stronger in the process.”
Morris says it’s important to make time for activities that increase our sense of wellbeing, such as doing exercise, connecting with people or catching up on sleep.
“When work becomes too demanding our natural reaction is to give up doing things we enjoy doing and we get sucked into the ‘busyness vortex’”, says Dr Morris.
“It’s really difficult to make massive changes, so people can start with small things, like go for a five-minute walk at lunch time or meet a friend for coffee.”
She says another problem is that people who are very stressed tend to focus on things they can’t control. Focusing only on what they can control helps bring stress levels down – Dr Morris calls this the “zone of power”.
Prioritising, rather than cramming more and more into an already packed schedule, is also important, says Dr Morris.
She has designed a grid to help employees distinguish between the important and the urgent tasks, and discard those which aren’t relevant.
Toxic work culture
“A lot of people in high-pressure jobs think it’s normal to feel stressed, but it’s not. It’s really bad for our health and we need to get over this myth,” says Morris.
However, she stresses that employers also need to take more responsibility and look at practices which can help people strike the right work-life balance and avoid burnout.
Entrepreneurs and millennials working in the digital and technology industry experience a lot of change, as well as job cuts, but are under pressure to keep performing.
The fluid nature of many careers is also a problem. Nowadays, we are reachable 24/7 and there are downsides to it – we never truly get to switch off and turn our brains off.
A 2018 Gallup Study of 7,500 full-time US employees found that around two-thirds of them experienced burnout at work.
Causes of burnout included:
- unfair treatment at work
- unmanageable workload
- lack of clarity about what a role involved
- lack of support from managers
- unreasonable time pressure
Dr Walker believes toxic work culture is probably one of the greatest sources of work stress. At a time when companies are under pressure to cut costs, more is expected from fewer employees. She feels this is an aspect of the problem that companies should do more to recognise.
“Although companies provide some support for stress at work, all too often the focus is on the individual,” Dr Walker says.
“The prevailing attitude is that they [employees] are the ones who become stressed. So we will help them get back on their feet, instead of looking at changing workplace practices.”