Kaarin Anderson Ryan
Have you ever described yourself as feeling burned out? Have you heard others describe themselves that way? Chances are, you or someone you know has experienced a sense of being burned out at some point. This feeling can arise from stress related to parenting, work, studying, or any number of things that place demands on you over a long period of time.
While the term burnout is casually used, the concept of actual burnout is well studied. In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger coined the term after conducting research on a set of symptoms shown by people in high-stress work environments. Since that time a great deal has been done to better understand the concept. By definition, burnout is basically a reaction to chronic job-related stress.
What causes burnout? Actual burnout is generally thought to be caused by 5 factors. These are (1) Unreasonable time pressure; (2) Lack of communication and support from a manager; (3) Lack of clarity for your role; (4) An unmanageable work load; and (5) Unfair treatment.
What are the other risk factors? There are a lot of things that can set someone up to become burned out. Some of the biggest risk factors seem to be:
Lack of work-life balance
Working in helping professions
Trying to be everything to everyone
Having little control over your work
Having Type A personalities
Parents can experience burnout
So, while anyone can experience burnout, there are certain conditions or characteristics that can increase the chances of becoming burned out. Often, people who are described as workaholics tend to fit a lot of the characteristics that put them at higher risk for burnout.
What are the signs of burnout? The signs and symptoms of burnout are similar to other signs of stress, but more closely related to work. Some of these signs include:
Feeling alienated from work-related activities – finding job increasingly stressful, feeling cynical about work and co-workers, emotionally distancing from work.
Physical symptoms– having chronic headaches, stomach problems.
Emotional exhaustion – feeling drained, having poor coping ability, feeling reduced energy.
Reduced performance – having negativity about work tasks, having difficulty concentrating, showing diminished creativity.
Escape fantasies – having thoughts about leaving for a different, more perfect job.
How does burnout start? According to Freudenberger, there are 12 stages of burnout, starting with mild burnout. Many people experience some of the milder stages of burnout throughout their careers. But, fortunately, it is more rare to experience debilitating burnout. The 12 stages typically are:
- The Compulsion to Prove Oneself– early in career or new job.
- Pushing yourself to work harder – ambition.
- Neglecting your own needs – sacrificing self-care.
- Displacement of conflict – blaming your stress on others or on the job.
- Revision of Values – friends and family are no longer as important as work.
- Denial – impatience with others, seeing them as incompetent.
- Withdrawal – avoiding or dreading social interaction, using alcohol or drugs.
- Behavioral changes – changes in behavior such as impatience, aggression, snapping at friends and family.
- Depersonalization – feeling detached – seeing neither yourself nor others as valuable.
- Inner emptiness – feeling empty inside and to overcome this, looking for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs.
- Depression – feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak.
- Burnout Syndrome – can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.
You can see that progressing through the stages of burnout is different from normal daily stress. The primary focus here is the emphasis on work, with a drive that becomes less about job satisfaction and success, and more about moving away from any work-life balance in favor of continuous focus on work and associated stresses.
Because burnout has risk factors, warning signs, and somewhat distinct phases, the good news is that it is preventable. Some of the more obvious preventions include self-care, self-awareness, and seeking balance between work and life outside of work. Stay tuned in the next month for some tips on how to prevent burnout, and how to cope with burnout when it does occur.
Freudenberger, H.J. (1974), Staff Burn-Out. Journal of Social Issues, 30: 159-165.
Freudenberger, H.J. & North, G. Women’s Burnout: How to Spot it, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It. (1985). New York: Doubleday.