Burnout is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Generally, burnout is associated with prolonged stress – especially in a work context. In fact, however, any extremely stressful experience (e.g., the death of a loved one, a serious illness, a breakup, etc.) can trigger burnout. Burnout can be very challenging and can have a profound impact on your mental and physical health.
Burnout is very common and affects people from diverse backgrounds and at diverse stages of life. It is important that you know the signs of burnout so that you can take active steps against it early on if symptoms appear in you or someone close to you.
A 2017 Gallup poll showed that 23% of all employees often feel burned out on the job. Another 44% sometimes feel burned out.
In this article, I want to give a general overview of burnout. In this context, I use, on one hand, current scientific studies and, on the other hand, my 20 years of experience in working with people with burnout.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at any time.
WHAT CAUSES BURNOUT
It is generally believed that the main cause of burnout is prolonged stress. In addition, a lack of autonomy and self-determination in one’s work has a negative impact on mental and physical health. Furthermore, an excessive workload or quantity of working hours including extra hours (poor work-life balance) is an important factor. In my personal experience in working with people with burnout, I have found in all cases that it is always either a deep disappointment or a loss of perspective that triggers burnout.
Therefore, burnout can be related to work as well as to stressful life events. There is also to certain personality traits that promote burnout. Below I list a variety of factors:
Excessive workload or work demands: This is related to a feeling of being overwhelmed by a workload that is too heavy for a 40-hour week, deadlines that are too tight, or a disproportionate level of responsibility or work obligations that are not realistic.
Lack of control or autonomy: There is a sense of powerlessness here, as you have little control over your workload or autonomy. In addition, you do have a say in decisionsmaking processes.
Inadequate support: Here, you may feel that you have little or hardly any support from colleagues, superiors or even the organization as a whole.
Unclear expectations at work: Here, you feel that you have unclear tasks, goals or a contradictory role model in the company.
Role conflicts: Here, you feel that your role in the company is unclear and this results in contradictions in work requirements due to different values, expectations and responsibilities.
Lack of appreciation or reward: This is where you feel that you receive a lack of appreciation of a material or emotional nature for your hard work.
Poor work-life balance: Here you feel that you have to sacrifice your personal needs for your job.
Chronic workplace stress: This is where you feel that your workplace is “toxic” – i.e. there is an atmosphere of conflict such as bullying between colleagues or supervisors or unhealthy competition.
In helping professions: Here, the feeling of being overwhelmed with the heavy emotional challenges of helping professions is prevalent. e.g. in the health sector, social work, etc.
Organizational and corporate change: This is where you feel frustration and stress due to changes in your organization – such as restructuring, downsizing, or even changes in your role within the company.
Startup Burnout: In the context of startups, there are many factors that can lead to burnout. In addition to a heavy workload, employees and founders of startups are often affected by a variety of other factors too. Many of the circumstances mentioned above contribute to this, such as unclear roles, responsibilities, expectations and values. In addition, there is often founder clash, financial pressure, when or whether financing rounds will go through, fear of the future, and much more.
LIFESTYLE FACTORS THAT CAUSE BURNOUT
Private stress: Personal life events can be triggers for burnout. These include the loss or separation from a significant other, financial existential problems, as well as serious illness.
Lack of support from the environment: Here you feel that you are alone and on your own. You feel that you are not very connected with your friends, family and even society.
Poor physical well-being: This factor is due to poor diet, little physical activity or insufficient sleep.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms: This is you reaction to pressure e.g. engaging in various form of addictions (drug abuse, gambling addiction, pornography), excessive eating, series-bingwatching, shopping addiction, etc.
Chronic illnesses: This category is not necessarily triggered by lifestyle, but it does have an impact on lifestyle and will add additional stress to daily life.
Chronic Stress: Chronic stress can be triggered by various lifestyle and personal issues. These include traumatic experiences, existential problems, as well as other factors.
PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO BURNOUT
A-type personalities: People who are very competitive, aggressive and driven create a high level of stress.
Perfectionism: A high personal standard that is perfectionistic often leads to constant dissatisfaction with one’s own performance as goals are not met in the desired form. This leads to increased stress.
Impulsiveness, over-commitment and high sense of responsibility: The ability to say “no” is essential so that you do not overcommit to too many needs of other people. If you commit to more things than you can actually do realistically, it will lead to mental or physical exhaustion. A high sense of responsibility to the needs of others can lead to burnout.
Empathy: A high level of empathy and lack of boundaries can lead to overwhelm, high stress and ultimately burnout.
Low self-esteem: Low self-esteem often leads to a lack of boundaries, over-commitment, and general overwhelm.
Avoidant Coping Style: Avoiding dealing with certain issues or situations leads to high levels of stress. This includes resistance to change or adaptation to new life situations.
Negative self-talk: Negative self-talk in which you criticize yourself or express dissatisfaction about yourself lead to general dissatisfaction and high levels of stress.
ARE YOU BURNED OUT – SYMPTOMS AND SIGNS OF BURNOUT
There are a variety of symptoms and signs that indicate you are at risk for burnout. One can distinguish between physical, emotional/mental and behavioral symptoms:
Physical symptoms may include the following:
- Prolonged or chronic fatigue
- Sleep disorders (difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep)
- Impaired immune response, which can lead to an increase in illnesses
- Pain or muscle aches
- Digestive problems, nausea
- Increased blood pressure
- Changes in the appetite or severe weight fluctuations.
EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS
Psychological symptoms may include the following:
- Emotional exhaustion or emptiness
- An inner dissociation or cynicism towards people and work
- The feeling of being insignificant or not accomplishing anything meaningful
- Hardly any interest in work or reduced motivation
- High levels of frustration and irritability
- Anxiety and depression
- A feeling of powerlessness, hopelessness and helplessness
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Cognitive disturbance, such as concentration problems or the ability to make decisions.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS IN BEHAVIOR?
- If you have recently often been late for appointments or canceled at short notice
- When your performance and productivity drops significantly.
- If you avoid to get more responsibility at work.
- If you suddenly have more conflicts with colleagues and superiors
- When your addictive behavior increases
It is important to note that many of these symptoms can also occur in other diseases. Therefore, in case of occurrence of more than one symptom, it is essential to have it medically clarified for proper differential diagnosis.
Many people believe that burnout and stress or burnout and depression are the same thing. In fact, there are significant differences that I will explain here below:
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BURNOUT AND STRESS?
Burnout and stress, while related, are different. Burnout is a syndrome that is characterized by long-term emotional exhaustion, inner alienation and the loss of joy of life and decreased performance. Stress, on the other hand, is a reaction to emotional, mental or physical challenges. Stress can lead to burnout in the long run if not managed appropriately. Burnout is a serious and long-lasting condition in which stress plays a major role, but it also involves other factors in one’s work or personal life. In the case of a full burnout, you are no longer fit for work and will be absent for at least six months. Burnout is a reaction to stress, whereas stress is a reaction to external factors.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BURNOUT AND DEPRESSION?
Burnout and depression are different, yet we have similar symptoms. Burnout syndrome is characterized by emotional exhaustion, a drop in performance and in an inner alienation, while depression is a mental illness in which sadness, hopelessness and lack of interest in life activities play an essential role.
Burnout can contribute to depression and the two conditions can occur at the same time, but they are still not the same thing. Burnout is often triggered directly by life events or work, while depression came a variety of internal and external triggers that are independent of life circumstances – including biochemical processes in the body.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT BURNOUT SYMPTOMS IN MEN AND WOMEN?
The symptoms of burnout in women or in men are similar. Scientific studies have shown that women have an increased risk of burnout in the context of gender-specific stressors, such as gender bias or gender discrimination in the workplace. In addition, women continue to be more challenged with balancing the demands of work and family responsibilities. Studies have also shown that women with burnout are more likely to exhibit symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, irritability, moodiness, loneliness, sleep disturbances, low levels of performance and motivation, or a lack of interest in activities they previously found fulfilling and meaningful.
In men, burnout manifests itself mainly in the form of inner distance and cynicism and often manifests itself more mentally through listlessness, difficulties in concentration and decision-making processes. In addition, men also complain of lower levels of productivity, motivation and energy.
Women are more likely to turn to help, whereas men tend to pursue unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY BURNOUT?
People from different walks of life, diverse demographic characteristics, work backgrounds, etc. can be affected by burnout. However, there are some risk factors and demographics that make you more susceptible to burnout.
Age: Burnout is more common between the ages of 25-45, but can occur in any age group.
Profession: People who work in a high-stress, high-demand environment are often more easily affected by burnout. These include a.o. Jobs in corporations or management positions, but also jobs in social services, health care and emergency response teams.
Job-related characteristics: People who have little control over their job or workload, or have ambiguity about or inconsistencies in their job role.
Work-life balance: People who have a poor work-life balance, are always available or work outside business hours, have long commutes to work or work a lot of extra hours, have an increased risk of burnout.
Personality traits: People with a perfectionist tendency, who are very self-critical or have very high standards for themselves, have an increased risk of burnout.
PROFESSIONS THAT ARE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO BURNOUT
It is important to note that burnout can occur in any job or sector of work and is influenced by individual factors and challenges and individual coping mechanisms.
- Jobs in (large) companies with a high level of stress and long working hours (overtime).
- Jobs in the technology industry with a heavy workload and tight deadlines.
- The health sector: doctors, nursing staff, therapists, social workers, etc.
- Education sector: teachers, university staff, administrative staff, etc.
- Public safety: police units, firefighters, army personnel.
- Jobs with a high level of customer interaction with challenging customers and clients (e.g. call centers, service hotlines).
- Jobs with little autonomy or opportunity for development.
TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR BURNOUT
There are a variety of treatment options for people who have burnout. Psychotherapy, psychological counseling and burnout coaching are common methods, but there are also several alternative and complementary methods and techniques that can be used successfully for burnout – including meditation, breathing therapy and singing bowl massage.
Psychotherapy, psychological counseling, and burnout coaching can help address the experiences that exacerbate symptoms. In dialogue, those affected can determine how their behavior has led to burnout. The goal is above all to develop behavioral patterns with which stress can be better managed.
Relaxation techniques in combination with accompanying counseling can promote very positive developments. Thus, regularly applied techniques such as yoga, meditation, breathwork, journal writing, etc. can help to quickly reduce stress and thus promote better health in the long run.
Different methods to combat burnout include:
Psychotherapy, psychological counseling, burnout coaching: Various forms of guidance and counseling in dialogue help to find clarity about the underlying root causes for burnout and to identify healthy coping strategies for a better work-life balance.
Medication: In extreme cases of burnout, antidepressants and other medications can be supportive. For this you need to consult a psychiatrist, neurologist or general practitioner. The use of various psychedelics is also currently under evaluation in the United States.
Lifestyle Changes: One of the most essential aspects of successfully treating burnout is lifestyle changes. It is essential that you eat healthy, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. This prevents you from suffering from chronic exhaustion in the long term and has a positive effect on your general sense of well-being.
Self-help groups: These can be very helpful with burnout. Participants in self-help groups find it supportive to see that they are not alone and that people in similar situations support each other.
It is essential that you contact qualified professionals to identify the most appropriate treatment methods for your individual situation. And it’s essential that you take action as early as possible, as untreated burnout can have long-term consequences – both on a physical level and for your mental health. This can worsen your quality of life in the long term, although it is preventable.
Burnout is an opportunity for a fresh start – the turning point in your life!
ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY TREATMENTS
In addition to traditional therapy and treatment options for burnout, there are also alternative and complementary methods that are promising. These include:
Acupuncture: This is a method of Chinese medicine in which metal needles are inserted into their body (acupuncture points) on certain parts of the body and can lead to general relaxation.
Massage therapy: As is commonly known, massages can reduce stress and thus be supportive in the treatment of burnout.
Herbal remedies: Certain herbal remedies such as ginseng and various teas can reduce stress and contribute to overall well-being.
Yoga, Chi Gong and other body meditations: Physical activity, especially meditations that have a physical focus, can help reduce stress and contribute positively to well-being in general.
Change in diet: A healthy diet has a significant positive effect on the general well-being and the reduction of stress. Especially in the context of burnout, this is an often underestimated method that can have a positive effect.
Sound healing: “Sound healing” is a commonly underestimated method that can put the body into a very deep state of relaxation and thus positively contribute to overcoming burnout.
Mindfulness meditation and breathwork are methods of inner retreat that have been shown to significantly reduce stress.
Which method is best to use in the treatment of burnout also has to do with the phase of burnout you are in (just before, at the peak, or after the peak).
BURNOUT PREVENTION STRATEGIES
In burnout prevention, it is necessary to take a proactive approach to dealing with stress. The goal is to maintain and improve mental and physical health. Below I share some tips to prevent burnout:
Setting boundaries: It is essential to set healthy boundaries between work and personal life. This includes, among other things, not engaging in work or still actively working outside of work hours (including disabling work-related notifications on the cell phone). It is important to specifically schedule times for “self-care” and leisure activities.
Practice self-care: By proactively doing things that are good for you and scheduling them regularly, you prevent chronic fatigue and reduce stress. Self-care can be exercise, meditation, taking regular saunas, or any activity you do alone or with friends or family that serves your physical and mental hygiene.
Seeking support: Building a strong network of people with whom you feel safe and who inspire, motivate and give you positive perspectives is not only essential in preventing burnout, but generally necessary for a happy life.
Enhancing sleep: Healthy sleep is generally one of the most important measures for a healthy life. Burnout often leads to the vicious circle of developing sleep disorders. There are some methods with which you can promote sleep (regularity, hypnosis, guided meditations, lucid dreaming).
Stress management: There are some methods that can be used to manage stress efficiency: Mindfulness meditation, relaxation techniques, breath work, and other stress management techniques can effectively prevent burnout.
Seeking professional help: If you have symptoms of burnout, it makes sense to seek professional help. This can be, among others, psychotherapy, burnout coaching or psychological counseling. It is important to realize that everyone experiences burnout differently. What works well for one person often doesn’t work so well for others. It is important to find the methods and techniques that work best for you in order to proactively maintain your mental and physical health. to be successful in managing stress.
SPECIAL PROPOSAL: RECOGNIZE YOUR PURPOSE FOR HEALING AND PREVENTION
Identifying your Purpose can be an essential part of the process of overcoming burnout. Purpose provides you with direction and meaning in life and makes you “burn” for something again – which is a very important aspect for people with burnout after previously feeling disillusioned and disconnected from life.
Knowing your Purpose can have the following positive effects:
It provides clarity on life’s path: knowing your Purpose helps you focus and concentrate your energy to achieve a meaningful goal. At the same time feelings of confusion and aimlessness are reduced.
Motivation is increased: If you know your purpose, you are much more likely to be motivated and live a healthy work-life balance – as you burn for something again.
Increased resilience: People who know their purpose and live in harmony with it are more resilient and better able to cope with stress or adverse circumstances, because they have a sense of purpose in their purpose.
Increased self-esteem: when you know you have a positive impact in life, it increases your self-worth and self-confidence. This in turn contributes positively to the general well-being.
Improves job satisfaction: When you live or perceive your purpose at work, you are fundamentally more satisfied with your job and your life and live a fulfilled life, which in turn prevents burnout.
In conclusion, identifying and knowing one’s purpose is an essential step in overcoming (and preventing) burnout. Purpose provides direction from within, increases motivation and overall well-being.
In summary, burnout is a serious physical and mental health condition. In recent years, the pandemic, climate change and the war in Europe, in particular, have led many people to fundamentally question the meaningfulness of their work activities. Coupled with stress at work, many people have developed burnout symptoms.
It is essential to recognize symptoms early on in order to take proactive steps against them. The most important thing is to take care of yourself (self-care), set realistic goals and healthy boundaries, and seek support when suffering from symptoms. You can prevent burnout or emerge from burnout stronger than before and live a fulfilled life.
If you have any further questions or need assistance, please feel free to contact me.
- Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20311
- Burnout: A Review of Theory and Measurement: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/19/3/1780
- Burnout: a Fashionable Diagnosis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3230825/
- Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0738399109001621