What is Burnout?

Stress and sustained pressure can take its toll upon people.  Whilst it might be possible to cope with stress and pressure in the short term, over the long term, we’re at serious risk of burnout.  In this first blog in a series of posts, we’ll look at what burnout is, who it affects and what the signs and symptoms of burnout involve.  Future blogs will cover how to take preventative action to avoid burnout and how to recover from burnout. 

Burnout:  No fuel left in the tank

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.  A vehicle’s fuel tank is a good analogy here.  If you drive for too long, too fast without stopping to re-fuel, eventually your vehicle grinds to a halt.  You need to take time to find a source of fuel, and then re-fuel the tank before you can carry in.   For many people, the various stresses and strains of life mean that they’re driving too fast, for too long.  That’s not sustainable in the long-term and places a person at risk of burnout. 

And, its worth mentioning, that burnout can also involve the slow and almost imperceptible depletion of energy and resources to cope with the pressures upon us.  We can think of burnout as also being about a hole in the fuel tank.  Without remedial action to stem the flow, there’s a gradual leaking of fuel from the tank which, eventually, results in the vehicle grinding to a halt. 

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What is burnout?

Burnout was first identified and described in 1974 by clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, in his study of nurses.  He noticed that pressures of work led to nurses becoming depleted.  Affected medical staff began to show signs of disengagement, feelings of helplessness and emotional exhaustion.  Now, burnout is widely recognised as a health condition that impacts significant numbers of people every year.  The ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision) includes burnout as a diagnosable health condition resulting from continuous and long-term stress exposure.  And the World Health Organization recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. 

Signs of burnout encompass emotional, physical, mental and behavioural symptoms.  Let’s look at some of the different signs and symptoms associated with burnout:

Emotional symptoms of burnout:
  • Depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Disillusionment
  • Detachment
  • Resentment
Physical symptoms of burnout
  • Tired
  • Rundown
  • Sleep problems
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Stomach complaints
Mental symptoms of burnout:
  • Finding it hard to concentrate / make decisions
  • Persistent thoughts about patients / clients
  • Intrusive imagery of work-related issues 
Behavioural symptoms of burnout:
  • May exhibit robotic actions,
  • Impaired practice with questionable ethical actions and increased errors
  • Jumpy / restless
  • Greater use of alcohol / other drugs. 
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Our brains on burnout

The human brain is equipped to respond to short bursts of periods of stress. The adrenaline that is released under pressure helps us to perform.  That’s useful when we need take prompt action in response to a stressor.  Our brain begins to release the stress hormone, cortisol, equipping us to stay alert in the face of challenge.

However, when pressure and stress are prolonged, our brain is flooded with cortisol and we remain for far too long in a flight or fight states, on high alert without sufficient respite.   In time, the brain begins to struggle to produce cortisol leading to adrenal fatigue.  Over time, the drip-drip effect of prolonged pressure and demands mean our brain is less efficient at regulating our stress response and we find we are less equipped to manage stress.  We label this experience burnout.    

Who’s at risk of burnout? 

The short answer is, anyone and everyone. A recent Gallup survey revealed 76% of employees occasionally experience symptoms of burnout, and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work.  Life in the 2021 is stressful and there’s a great deal of pressure on most people. 

However, research also points to people withing caring professions as being at particular risk of burnout.  Recent estimates suggest that up to 40% of UK Doctors may be experiencing burnout.   A European study in shows that 42% of UK nurses report burnout compared with a European average of 28%.  We know that people engaged in the care professions, and where work involves a significant degree of interpersonal contact and exposure to other people’s suffering, are at greater risk of burnout.  That means people engaged in “high touch” (as opposed to high tech!) employment are at greatest risk of burnout.   Social workers, teachers, medical professionals, carers (paid and unpaid), police, firefighters, aid workers, counsellors, members of the clergy…. the list goes on.  Anyone in these roles is at risk of burnout.  Charles Figley, a key researcher in this area speaks about the “cost of caring”:  the empathy and compassion that make people in caring roles so good at their job is what can lead to burnout in the long-term. 

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

Burnout….. so what?

We’ve explored what burnout is, the signs and symptoms of burnout and who is at risk of burnout.  So, how can you use this information to help you?  Well, many people do seek therapy to explore their relationship with burnout and to have space to find freedom from the negative impacts of burnout.  Some enlightened workplaces offer access to EAP and other wellbeing support, which can help employees at risk of burnout to access counselling. 

In my next blog, we’ll look at some practical self-help strategies you can employ to help manage burnout. A final blog post in this series will explore how to take actions to protect yourself from burnout. 

Let me know what works for you in terms of recognising and managing burnout in your own unique circumstances. 

Published by Claire Law

Qualified Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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