Business Bites: Burnout

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO sector skills development officer

Continued uncertainty and constant change has had a negative effect on health at work. In our second Business Bites this month, we consider the issue of burnout: what it is, how to spot it, and how to avoid it.

What is burnout?

Burnout could be described simply as information overload. According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. It is not classified as a medical condition.

The ICD-11 describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

• Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
• Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
• Reduced professional efficacy

“Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context, and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Identifying burnout

In her article, ‘The telltale signs of burnout. Do you have them?’ (Psychology Today 2013), Sherrie Bourg Carter writes: “Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment and/or feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

• Physical signs, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, stomach pain, sleep problems, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue, and/or increased illness
• Psychological signs, such as loss of enjoyment for activities once enjoyed; sadness; excessive anxiety or worry; panic attacks; feeling trapped without options for relief or escape; loss of motivation; loss of concentration; emotional hypersensitivity at seemingly inconsequential things; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or pessimism; and/or increasing feelings of irritability, frustration, or anger
• Behavioural signs, such as skipping meals; little or no appetite or overeating; increase in alcohol use; increased absenteeism; drop in productivity; many uncompleted projects despite long work hours; and/or isolative behaviours, such as wanting to be alone, closing doors to prevent others from access, being generally inaccessible, eating lunch alone, or being a poor team player

When in the throes of full-fledged burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. However, burnout doesn’t happen suddenly. You don’t wake up one morning and all of the sudden ‘have burnout’. Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognise. Still, our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can recognise it before it’s too late.

Avoiding and overcoming burnout

In her article, ‘Overcoming burnout. 10 steps to reignite your flame and burn brightly once more’ (Psychology Today 2011) Bourg Carter tell us: “If you’ve become a victim of burnout, here are a few steps you can take:
• Make a list of all the situations that cause you to feel stressed, anxious, worried, frustrated, and helpless. Don’t rush through it. In fact, you should consider it a work in progress, adding to it as things enter your mind
• Next to each item on the list, write down at least one way to modify that situation to reduce its stress, and then begin implementing them in your routine. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s unrealistic to expect it to go away overnight. Consistent implementation of positive changes in your routine is the best way to see improvement
• Just say No. While you’re ‘recovering’, avoid taking on any new commitments or responsibilities. I know you have to live in the real world and there will be some things that you just can’t get out of doing
• Delegate as many things as possible, even if the person you’re delegating to may not do them as quickly or as well as you would
• Take breaks between big projects. Burnout puts your mind and body in a weakened state, so avoid jumping from one stressful, time-consuming project to the next in order to give your mind and body a chance to recover
• Control your devices. Gadgets, such as iPads, computers, and smartphones, can consume large amounts of your time and energy. Turn them off as much as possible
• Socialise outside your professional group. This can provide fresh perspectives, stimulate new ideas, and help you discover previously undiscovered resources
• Resist the urge to take work home
• Consider a support group. It can be a professional organisation that provides support or mentoring, or a group of casual friends getting together to vent and share ideas. Whichever you choose, a support group serves two purposes:
– Sharing feelings often reduces stress
– Getting together with others reduces isolation, a common consequence of burnout.