What is Burnout?

‘Burnout’ is a term that was coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the physical and psychological consequences of highly demanding, stressful jobs on employees in the treatment profession, like doctors and nurses[1]. The stress of these jobs would leave workers ‘exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.[2]’ Nowadays, the term is used to refer to these feelings as a result of stress from any job, but is still primarily found within jobs that deal with helping people[3]. Burnout creates feelings of cynicism, depression, and lethargy in workers[4].

One of the biggest reasons that people burn out is because of their own expectations of themselves in the workplace. People with high functioning anxiety may be triggered by high demands and workplace stress, and use the adrenaline from the anxiety to keep working, leading to a number of physical and psychological health issues.

Characteristics of Burnout

Burnout is characterised by feelings of exhaustion and depleted energy, negative feelings towards your job as well as mental distance from the work, and decreased professional efficacy. A person suffering from burnout may constantly feel physically tired and emotionally drained. They experience a lack of focus for long periods, and have low self esteem and a loss of interest concerning the workplace. Feelings of paranoia and alienation are also common characteristics of a person who is burned out.

Internal factors like anxiety and depression, and external factors like a stressful, hostile work environment contribute significantly to burnout. Though it can affect anyone, it is most often seen in people who have tendencies towards obsessive control and perfectionism. These people usually have a strong need to meet their own high standards, but often neglect to address their physical and psychological limits in the process.

Symptoms of Burnout

  • Depression and anxiety - Burnout can result in feelings of depression and anxiety, though these may be a contributing factor to burning out in the first place. When people are suffering from these conditions, workplace demands can be difficult to meet. One may pressure themselves to fight through it in order to maintain job security, but this can have quite a negative impact on emotional health.
  • Physical and emotional exhaustion - If a person is burned out, they will feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Continuing to work and ‘powering through’ will only lead to further exhaustion.
  • Self doubt and low self esteem - A very common symptom of burnout is low self esteem in relation to workplace competency, and self doubt around decision making. Naturally, mistakes can cause within us brief lapses in confidence, but if this is a regular occurrence then burnout may be to blame.
  • Lack of motivation and energy - We can’t always be our most motivated, energetic selves. Some days are alway going to be better or worse than others in terms of workplace performance. If, however, you find that you are constantly lacking in motivation and energy, then you could be suffering from burnout.
  • Self-medication - In response to stress from work overload or highly demanding tasks, some people choose to self medicate. This may be done through the use of stimulants to keep going, or depressants to relax. This behaviour and attitude towards work and life is dangerous as overuse of drugs can very easily lead to addiction.
  • Irritability and Aggression - High demanding work combined with stress and feelings of doubt or incompetence takes its toll on the mind. Such circumstances often leave people feeling irritated and frustrated, which may then be taken out on family and colleagues. This is one of the most destructive symptoms of burnout.
  • Insomnia - Work-related stress and mental exhaustion can leave people feeling like their life is barely their own. Some burn into the night with worries that they struggle to let go of, minds racing to the point where sleep seems impossible. This symptom of burnout is a dangerous one as all functioning - physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive - is affected by lack of sleep.

Who is affected by burnout?

Burnout is most often seen in jobs in which workers deal with people. Such jobs include treatment providers, teachers, prison officers, and retail staff. Emergency service providers such as doctors and nurses, police officers, and paramedics are at the highest risk of burnout as they regularly work in high-stress conditions[5].

In a recent report by Medscape, it was found that among the 15,000 US doctors surveyed, 44% reported experiencing symptoms of burnout[6]. Research on hospital and emergency department staff in France found that 34% of those surveyed reported burnout as a result of excessive workload and a high demand for care[7].

Lawyers are also at a high risk of burnout. A recent UK survey found that of the lawyers surveyed, a staggering 72% reported feelings of burnout in their job, 58% of whom believed the issue could be resolved by a better work-life balance[8].

Dealing with Burnout

Though high-stress jobs such as those in the medical profession and law enforcement are particularly known for incidences of burnout, it can actually happen in any job, when one’s work-life balance is off, or boundaries in the workplace are not met.

A key factor in dealing with burnout is knowing when you are affected by it. It is important to be aware of your own capabilities and limits so that you can set appropriate boundaries in place and say ‘no’ when you need to.