When the pressure is on at work and you face greater volumes and tighter deadlines with fewer resources, it is hard not to feel stressed and anxious. If this situation persists for a sustained period of time you may well experience burnout.
Psychiatrist Professor Gordon Parker AO, founder of the Black Dog Institute, explains the definition of burnout in a recent ABC news interview.
What is burnout?
Sufferers of burnout describe feelings of continual fatigue, reduced empathy and disconnection from activities that would otherwise bring them meaning or purpose.
The true state of burnout would be where the individual is exhausted week in week out … it’s unrelenting and unremitting.
Professor Parker explains that it is different to experiencing bouts of stress – “Stress is when you’re in that fight or flight mode. Your adrenaline is pouring out and you’re fired up and you’re doing things and you’re on the go”.
“Burnout is when that fire is no longer present … your eyes are looking a bit blank and your mind is a little bit blank and you’re not performing as well as you should be.”
Whilst the phenomenon is thought to be on the rise in modern workplaces, it was first documented by disaffected fourth-century Christian monks who described being stifled by feelings of ‘grey’.
They called the experience, ‘acedia’, which translates to ‘not-caring’ in Greek.
“You do feel exhausted across the day, across the week … those blue skies don’t seem to press your buttons like they used to,” Professor Parker said.
“People with burnout are more just feeling a state of drifting along and not experiencing any great pleasure and that’s a very disquieting state.”
He describes the experience of a Melbourne veterinarian, Dr N, who was struggling in the face of an unrelenting caseload.
Overtime was frequent and expected and the constant pressure to bill clients resulted in rushed consults and every shift became a race against the clock.
Going to work quickly became associated with feelings of dread.
“I think deep down, in the back of my mind, I knew that this workplace wasn’t working for me,” Dr N said.
“It was knowing that I would be stepping into chaos. “That I would be stepping into an overwhelming situation. It was a feeling of defeat.
“The working style was wearing me down … we did have a few meetings but essentially they weren’t going to be able to meet too many of my needs.”
A psychologist suggested she was experiencing burnout. And it was impacting all other aspects of her life.
“I couldn’t find joy in the things that normally [I] would have. I spend a lot of time dancing. I didn’t want to dance anymore. I am owned by two cats. I couldn’t bring myself to care for them,” she explained.
“It was an overwhelming feeling of lack of control, but absolutely at the same time this feeling of numbness.”
Isn’t this depression?
Although burnout shares traits with depression, such as social withdrawal and decreased performance, how the conditions are related is not well understood.
Recognising the signs of burnout
- Emotional exhaustion—harder to bounce back from challenges, trouble sleeping
- Not taking much pleasure in life
- Lacking empathy or disconnection from others
- Reduced concentration span—skimming articles, flicking through channels
- Diminished work performance
But self-esteem could be critical in determining the difference.
“What is central in my view to defining depression is a drop in one’s self-esteem and self-worth,” Professor Parker said.
“For people with burnout, many will describe that their self-esteem is impacted to some degree, but it’s not central to the construct.
“There, I think, lies the difference, that is self-esteem drop is central to depression but it’s not central to burnout.”
Professor Parker is leading an Australian-first study into burnout, with hopes of developing a diagnostic tool to measure and treat the condition.
Demanding workplaces and perfectionism create a toxic recipe
Beware workplaces where stress is worn as a badge of honour.
Burnout can be triggered by continual exposure to stress and a high-pressure work environment, along with other factors such as lack of resources and support, Professor Parker explained.
This combination, along with a perfectionist personality style, can create a toxic situation for burnout to emerge.
“Most people in our research that experience burnout are reliable, conscientious, perfectionistic people … where work is extremely important to their self-identity and who they are as human beings,” Professor Parker said.
“For many that reaches the level of workaholism — they take pride in their work.”
“I suspect that people who have a personality style where they just say no ‘worries mate, she’ll be right’…I don’t think they experience burnout.”
Is taking a holiday the antidote to burnout?
Unfortunately, the cure for burnout is not as simple as taking a holiday, explained Professor Parker.
“If you’re really burnt out you won’t be able to lie on a beach with ease….you’ll be thinking about what’s going on at work,” he said.
“I suspect it’s a bit of horses for courses scenario where for some people doing something like exercise distraction is going to be the most helpful [treatment] and for other people it’s going to be the relaxation strategies of mindfulness, meditation yoga and so on.”
“And then in some workplaces there may be activities that can be introduced that the working hours can be changed.”
Veterinarian Dr N was prepared to walk away from her profession until she found a workplace that would accommodate her new workplace boundaries, such as reduced hours and longer client consults.
“I was open with my new boss about where I was at burnout wise,” she said.
“I was lucky to come across someone who had an appreciation for taking care of one’s mental health.”