Turning Around the Signs of Burnout

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Once, you were a high achiever, full of enthusiasm and energy about your work. You'd put in the hours and more. You'd defend your work, extol its virtues: you felt part of something bigger than yourself. Then, at a point you can't quite recall, all this began to change. Maybe you put it down to feeling a bit tired and a little out of sorts? But these new feelings and thoughts slowly took up residence. Increasingly you began to question the worth of what you are doing and the fact that your hard work seems to be taken for granted. You now find it easy to see the cracks in the system and your conversation has become increasingly cynical. You notice how you've become detached, tired and irritated by the tasks you have to accomplish. In short, you have all the signs of burnout.

The psychologist, Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger, is generally credited with coining the term burnout and defining it as, "the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results." The sense of trying harder while seeming to achieve less is a central feature of burnout. It was Freudenberger who also commented upon the sense of "omnipotence" that frequently accompanies someone in the situation of burnout. Even if offered, they are likely to refuse help from other people in the belief that only they have the capabilities for the job. This, despite the fact that their work may have become sloppy and behind schedule.

The physical and emotional exhaustion associated with burnout can manifest itself in terms of suspicion of other people's motives, depression and an increase in psychosomatic symptoms such as headache, backache, difficulty sleeping and stomach complaints. As such the person becomes more irritable, inflexible, critical and reluctant to see themselves as having a problem. Yet, if ignored, the situation simply worsens.

More enlightened companies recognize that burnout is commonly associated with people in positions of authority who have simply worked too hard for too long. Some even have established systems for recognizing and working with individuals or groups who either suffer from or are at risk from burnout. For the individual however, the first step in reversing the effects of burnout is to recognize the signs. Once this is established a few very simple things can help to reverse the process.

The fact that burnout is so clearly associated with over-work and exhaustion tells us that an important first step is rest. This can be difficult for the person who believes only they can do their job, but if they don't take their foot off the throttle, their health risks increase. Time away from work is also an opportunity to reflect on what's really important. It's a time to establish work-life boundaries, to plan a vacation schedule and stick to it. All the stuff from work cluttering your home should be taken back to work.

During work, establish clearer lines of activity that draw others in to help. Use your breaks to get away from the desk and get some exercise. Turning around the signs of burnout does require a degree of self-awareness and sometimes a re-prioritizing of what's important in life.