Understanding and Preventing Burnout

Burnout sneaks up disguised as 'just stress' but unlike stress, it can derail career or personal relationships.
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Insight Timer is the top free meditation app on iOS and Android.

What is Burnout?

The term burnout was first used by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in a 1974 paper which explored the phenomenon among medical clinic workers. Today, we understand the term burnout more broadly.

Burnout is specifically work related, although it’s important to recognize ‘work’ can occur outside of the office. For example, one may experience burnout as a full-time caretaker of an ill family member inside the home. Although burnout begins in the workplace, the pervasive sense of fatigue can affect social and familial relationships. 

Burnout is characterized by extreme exhaustion that’s felt on a physical, mental and emotional level. Those with burnout may feel hopeless, as if any effort is a waste of time. Burnout can also manifest as anger or resentment. As it continues, burnout exhausts the central nervous system, making one vulnerable to physical illness.

Psychologists agree the common features of burnout are exhaustion, a sense of alienation from work-related activities, and diminished performance regarding everyday tasks.

Exhaustion will feel like…

  • Constant fatigue
  • A change in sleep habits 
  • Muscular pain or headaches
  • Frequent illness 
  • Increased reliance on caffeine or other drugs

Alienation from work-related activities will feel like…

  • Lack of motivation
  • Increase in self-doubt
  • Negative and cynical feelings
  • A sense nothing will change
  • Feeling alone in your experience

Diminished performance will feel like…

  • Frequent procrastination
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Withdraw from work teams and projects
  • Blaming or becoming angry with others
  • Arriving to work later and leaving earlier

What’s the Difference Between Stress, Depression and Burnout?

Stress, depression and burnout share many similar characteristics, and of course, some people experience all three. But while burnout can lead to depression and vice versa, treating burnout appropriately requires differentiating it from similar psychological challenges.

When we’re stressed, we might still believe if we only work hard enough, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Burnout, on the other hand, is characterized by a hopelessness that provokes giving up on work completely. This sounds like depression, but burnout is different.

While burnout can affect all areas of our life, it arises from work-related stress. Depression, on the other hand, may include negative thoughts that begin outside the workplace, low self-esteem, or suicidal ideation, none of which is typically related to burnout.

Burnout also has a close relative, compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a state of hopelessness that arises from personally absorbing the world’s pain and suffering. When we experience empathy in a healthy way, we relate to the suffering of others without attaching and taking it upon ourselves.   

Who is at Risk for Burnout?

You’re at risk for burnout if you feel overworked and underappreciated. In addition, those who are attached to control or perfectionism are more likely to experience burnout. 

Actions to Take when Overworked

Being overworked can arise from simply working too much. Overworking may also stem from poorly communicated expectations, a lack of boundaries or the inability to delegate tasks. 

To-do list:

  • Ask others for help when you need it
  • Share the burden by delegating tasks
  • Take small, frequent breaks
  • Use your vacation time
  • Set appropriate boundaries regarding work hours

Actions to Take when Underappreciated

Feeling underappreciated often occurs when we seek approval and reward from outside ourselves. We may feel as though we aren’t paid enough, as if our supervisor doesn’t notice or appreciate our efforts, or as if our coworkers don’t value our contributions. To combat feelings of being undervalued, we can change our perspective on where value comes from.

To-do list:

  • Cultivate relationships with your coworkers
  • Find value and purpose in your work that goes beyond your compensation
  • Celebrate every achievement, no matter how small

Are You a Perfectionist?

Type A personalities with perfectionist tendencies often take on too many responsibilities and are less likely to delegate tasks. Excessive ambition or fear of failure can lead to overworking, and may contribute to a lack of self-care. De-prioritizing what truly nourishes us can lead to future burnout.  

To-do list:

  • Balance work with time spent on nourishing activities 
  • Prioritize eating well, sleeping well and exercising 
  • Meditate daily for a steady, calm mind

Practice self-compassion and visualization to find your motivation again.

Understanding what puts you at risk for burnout is the key to preventing it. By recognizing the early signs of stress, and your own tendency to overwork, burnout can be prevented before it begins.

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