It’s Time To Take A Closer Look At Burnout

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 
Burnt matches going from least burnt to completely burnt, representing burnout

You’ve probably heard about burnout. It occurs when individuals are feeling overworked or overwhelmed. It is a physical, emotional, and mental response to stress. Burnout can be caused by numerous factors: individuals can experience parental burnout, social burnout, occupational burnout, and/or medical burnout. They can become overburdened by their job or their life or their relationships, and burnout can range in severity.

“Some people with burnout continue to show up to work and harness their struggles on the inside,” Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist, tells Scary Mommy. “However, others are unable to do anything until they heal.” They literally and physically break down.

But what is burnout, really? From coping skills to warning signs, here’s everything you need to know about this common psychological (and physiological) condition.

What is burnout?

While the term “burnout” is relatively new — the origins of the phrase date back to 1974 — the condition is not. “Burnout is a phenomenon that occurs when we have exhausted all of our physical and mental energy and we are left feeling completely overwhelmed,” Sadoun explains. “It is very common for parents to experience burnout, as they are often juggling many different responsibilities. However, everyone is susceptible to burnout, particularly those in industrialized nations which promote ‘hustle culture.’”

What are the signs and symptoms?

The signs and symptoms of burnout vary from person to person and situation to situation. However, burnout can cause physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms. Individuals experiencing burnout, for example, may have frequent headaches or stomach aches. Intestinal distress may also occur. They may become irritable and/or find themselves quick to anger. A short temper is usually a sign something is amiss. And individuals experiencing burnout are likely dealing with some level of exhaustion. Fatigue is a common symptom of burnout.

Other signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, and/or experiencing self-doubt
  • Headaches, neck pain, and muscle aches
  • Loss of motivation
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping habits
  • Detachment, or feeling alone in the world
  • Irritability
  • A general sense of instability
  • Isolating behaviors

What are the risk factors for burnout?

Everyone is at risk for burnout. That’s a fact. However, some factors may make you more likely or prone to burnout than others. According to a 2018 report by Gallup, employee burnout has five main causes:

  • Time pressures. Unreasonable deadlines and long work hours can increase an individual’s risk of experiencing burnout, particularly if they feel they do not have enough time to get their work done.
  • Lack of communication and support. While it may not seem like it, having a supportive manager can make or break your job. Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.
  • Unfair treatment. When individuals feel they are being treated unfairly — due to favoritism, discrimination, or other issues — they are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout.
  • Unmanageable workload. When one’s workload feels unmanageable, hopelessness doesn’t just exist, it persists. And this, combined with stress and overwhelm, can quickly lead to burnout.
  • Lack of role clarity. Do you know what’s required of you, i.e. do you know the parameters and expectations of your job? If so, you’re not alone. According to a recent State of the American Workplace report, only 60% of workers know what is expected of them. This means that 4 out of every 10 people are unsure what is required by, of and for their job. And uncertainty can lead to frustration, exhaustion, and — ultimately — burnout.

Risk factors for non-occupational burnout include:

  • Financial instability
  • Caregiving, particularly caring for an aging parent or young child
  • Having a rigorous academic schedule
  • Relationship problems
  • Lacking childcare and/or parental support

How is burnout treated?

While the best course of treatment for burnout will depend on the cause — work-related burnout, for example, may be managed with better communication and boundaries while parental burnout may be managed with sleep and support — there are things everyone (and anyone) can do to cope.

“If you are already experiencing burnout, there are ways to get through it and come out the other side feeling well-rested,” Sadoun tells Scary Mommy. “I would recommend taking pressure off yourself as much as you can. There are some responsibilities you cannot ignore, such as taking care of your children, but don’t be afraid to let other things go for a while. For example, if you’re offered a new project at work, turn it down in favor of getting more rest. This will make you more productive in the long run as you will eventually have more energy and motivation if you allow yourself to rest.”

Making exercise a part of your daily routine can also help, especially since exercise increases energy and reduces stress, and practicing both mindfulness and gratitude can help you stay in the moment. Practicing self-compassion is also key.

“Remind yourself you don’t have to be perfect, and that it’s OK to need a break,” an article on Healthline states. “Grant yourself… love and support… [and know that] in the end, all you can do is your best with the strengths you have. But you’ll find it easier to use those strengths when you aren’t running on empty.”

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