The Burnout Phenomenon

Catherine Lawson

Burnout is one of those things you’ve likely heard people talking about, perhaps because they’ve experienced it themselves or because they’re worried about someone who seems to be heading that way. In a world of work where highly competitive environments, excessive workloads and competing demands are more prevalent, workplaces have become fertile grounds for burnout and this ‘occupational phenomenon of the 21st century… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’* is on the rise.

So what are the root causes? It’s not just about working too hard for too long, high stress levels or ineffective leadership and lack of support (although make no mistake about it – when the challenges faced by an individual by far exceed the support offered, the foundation for burnout has been laid). Burnout happens when, in addition to the above, the values at play in the workplace each day are significantly different from the personal values which drive the individual affected – they can no longer tolerate it and it quite literally crushes their soul. A sense of injustice, a lack of reward for effort and the loneliness which comes from having no community for support are also key triggers commonly cited by those affected.

It’ll be no surprise to you to hear that there is a proven correlation between perfectionism and burnout and that those affected often place a disproportionately high value on work and unrealistic expectations on themselves. The result is a long-term impact on every aspect of their wellbeing: mental, emotional, social and physical.

Symptoms differ from one individual to another but the most common signs of burnout include:

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Loss of motivation
  • Uncharacteristic negativity
  • Behaviour changes
  • Loss of mental clarity
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Gradual withdrawl and self-isolation
  • Feeling defeated
  • Physical ill health

Here’s the thing, though, despite all of the above symptoms, the person suffering from burnout is often the last to know, particularly if their work ethic is strong and they’re trying to push through personal feelings they don’t fully understand to try and deliver what’s expected of them. Because of this, it’s essential for managers and leaders to be aware of the signs of burnout so that the right supports and interventions can be made available. Understanding what triggers this workplace phenomenon is essential and paying attention to what’s happening to people is the key to managing timely interventions.

If you are personally experiencing a period of burnout, here are some key things to keep in mind:

  • Seek expert medical advice – a significant period of time off work is essential.
  • Recovery doesn’t happen overnight – it can take years to fully recover from burnout so be kind and patient with yourself.
  • Accept the support that’s around you and embrace the people who show up for you.
  • Accept that not everyone who should show up will show up (bosses can quickly go into self-preservation mode and distance themselves from a member of staff who has reached burnout on their watch and some less progressive institutions make it their policy not to engage with employees who are absent with anything stress related).
  • Focus on the holy trinity of self-care: diet, sleep and exercise. Getting these three things right will significantly support your recovery.

Given its prevalence in the 21st century workplace, a strategy for burnout should be part of every workplace wellbeing policy. For workplace leaders the key message is this: when good people go quiet start listening. For everyone else it’s simple: be kind – you never know what others are dealing with.

*As defined by the World Health Organisation