Spurn The Burn

Spurn The Burn Image by: Zach Klein

Burnout is characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion - usually as a result of too much work. Many people experience burnout without even realising it, and only know something’s wrong when their symptoms become severe enough to significantly interfere with their work and family life. How at risk of burnout are you, and what can you do to help yourself?

What is Burnout?

The short, simple answer is that burnout is a syndrome of physical and emotional exhaustion, usually as a result of too much work or frequent frustration at work.

The more complex answer is that burnout is a negative reaction to stress at work with psychological, physiological and behavioural effects. Burnout appears to be a major factor in low worker morale, high absenteeism and job turnover rates, physical illness and distress, increased alcohol and drug use, marital and family conflict, and various psychological problems.

Burnout became a globally-recognised condition in 2020 when it was included in the World Health Organisation's (WHO) ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases - 10th Revision), in the section on “problems related to employment or unemployment”.  The definition that now appears in the ICD-11 is even more detailed and is described in the chapter: "Factors influencing health status or contact with health services" – which includes reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

In order to make a diagnosis of burnout, however, it is important to rule out anxiety disorders, mood disorders and other stress disorders such as acute stress reaction and post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorders or other reactions to severe stress as defined by the ICD-11.

Additionally, this syndrome is limited to work environments and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of a person’s life. In other words, in the ICD-11 definition, burnout is identified as an occupational phenomenon and not a medical condition.

How do I Know I have Burnout?

As mentioned above, burnout is composed of three dimensions:

  • Exhaustion – which refers to feelings of stress, specifically chronic fatigue resulting from excessive work demands.
  • Depersonalisation or cynicism – which refers to an apathetic or detached attitude toward work in general and the people with whom one works; leading to the loss of interest in work, and feeling that work has lost its meaning.
  • Lack of professional efficacy – which refers to reduced feelings of efficiency, successful attainment, and accomplishment both in one's job and the organisation. 

Symptoms of burnout to look out for include the following:

  • Changed job performance
    Increased absenteeism, tardiness, mistakes in routine tasks, inability to concentrate, difficulty in making and explaining decisions, use of sick leave and decreased efficiency or productivity - working more but enjoying it less.

  • Increased overtime and no holiday leave
    Feeling indispensable to the organisation and reluctant to say no to working on scheduled off-days.

  • Skipping rest and food breaks
    Continually having no time for coffee or lunch breaks to restore stamina.

  • Social withdrawal
    Pulling away from co-workers, friends and family members, finding it difficult to confide in others.

  • Self-medication
    Increased use of alcohol, tranquilisers and other mood-altering drugs. 

  • Increased physical complaints
    Fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, frequent headaches, stomach upsets, susceptibility to illness, loss of pleasure in sex, insomnia.

  • Emotional changes
    Emotional exhaustion, loss of self-esteem, depression, frustration, a 'trapped' feeling, pessimism, paranoia, rigidity, callousness, increased interpersonal conflict and irritability, feelings of loneliness, guilt, isolation and hopelessness.

It is important to note that by the time you have many of these symptoms, burnout has already been developing for a period of time.   

Stages of Burnout

Burnout develops progressively over 5 stages.

  • Stage one (the honeymoon) 
    At this stage, the worker is usually satisfied with the job and the tasks involved, remaining enthusiastic towards work. However, as this stage continues, the tasks become less enjoyable and the worker loses energy.

  • Stage two (fuel shortage)
    At this stage, fatigue sets in and the worker may respond by abusing drugs. Difficulty sleeping is another symptom of this stage.

  • Stage three (chronic symptoms)
    At this stage, overwork leads to physical effects that include constant exhaustion and susceptibility to illnesses, as well as psychological effects, including acute anger and feelings of depression.

  • Stage four (crisis)
    At this stage, actual illness can develop, resulting in the worker not being able to do his job. Relationships at home may also be affected due to a sense of pessimism, self-doubt and/or obsession with problems.

  • Stage five (hitting the wall)
    At this stage, the physical and psychological problems can become severe enough to cause life-threatening illness. The worker now has so many problems at work that his or her career is also threatened.

What Should I do if I Have Burnout?

There are many things you can do. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask yourself "What do I work for?"
    List all the things (material and abstract) that you get out of your job. Identify your motivations, the value and meaning of your job. Does this justify the amount of time you put into your job?

  • Ask yourself "What do I really want to do?"
    List all the activities you like and rank them in order of importance. Then note the last time you engaged in each.

  • Create a pie chart of your activities
    Show how you are currently spending your time. Include all aspects of your life. For example, work, shopping, exercise, family time, cooking, homework with kids etc. Make another pie chart, this time showing how you would like to be spending your time. Put this chart up where you can see it every day. Make it your goal to achieve this.

  • Create a support group
    Enlist friends and/or co-workers and meet on a regular basis.

  • Start a physical health care programme
    Include exercise and good nutrition, and eliminate destructive habits, such as smoking.

  • Start a psychological health care programme
    Include training in relaxation, negotiation, time management, stress management and assertiveness.

  • Do something silly every day
    Go rollerblading, play tiddlywinks, blow bubbles or make funny faces. Relax, smile and avoid taking yourself too seriously.

How can I Prevent Burnout?

Remember that you don't have to suffer from burnout. You are in control of yourself and your feelings. You can exercise this control. If you are struggling to do this, acknowledge that you need help, and seek the help of a psychologist or other similar professional.
Do all the things suggested above, but also:

  • Learn some relaxation exercises
    A psychologist can help you to do this.

  • Learn to meditate
    Remember prayer is a form of meditation.

  • Learn time management skills

  • Learn to be assertive
    That is, learn to be able to ask for what you want or say no to what you don't want or don't feel comfortable doing. 
    My article Attention on Assertiveness might help you to do this.

  • Learn to breathe properly
    This has an instantly beneficial and relaxing effect on our body.

  • Learn to delegate

  • Learn the principles of good sleep hygiene
    Ensure that you regularly get a good night's sleep.
    Read my article on Insomnia for information on the principles of good sleep hygiene.

  • Learn stress management techniques

Monitor your symptoms and do something before you reach the burnout stage.
The inventory below will help you to do this: It will tell you if you are suffering from burnout or only partway there (i.e. still in the 'brownout' stage).

Burnout Test

For each statement below, write a T if the statement is true for you or an F if it isn't.

  Are you less efficient at work?
  Have you lost some of your initiative at work?
  Have you lost interest in your work?
  Does work stress get to you more than it used to?
  Do you feel fatigued or run down?
  Do you get headaches?
  Do you get stomach aches?
  Have you lost or gained weight recently? (Without trying to)
  Do you have trouble sleeping?
  Do you experience shortness of breath?
  Do you have frequently changing or depressed moods?
  Do you get angry easily?
  Do you get frustrated easily?
  Are you more suspicious than you used to be?
  Do you feel more helpless than you used to?
  Are you using mood-altering drugs (e.g. tranquilisers or alcohol)?
  Are you becoming more inflexible?
  Are you becoming more critical of your own or others' competencies?
  Are you working more, but feeling you are getting less done?
  Have you lost some of your sense of humour?

If you answered True for more than half of these statements, you may be experiencing brownout (partway there).

If you answered True for 15 or more of these statements, you may be burning out or already burnout.

Recognise that you can remedy this situation by employing some of the suggestions given in this article.

Any Other Advice?

Burnout in women is a topic of interest. There is an argument that businesswomen experience a high degree of burnout, but they are less likely than men to admit its existence because of their concern that it will be construed as weakness. It is a widely-held belief that women need to work much harder than men to prove themselves. Even woman aerobic instructors are experiencing burnout, and this is resulting in physical injury.
Acknowledge that you can't be superwoman - and don't even try. A frazzled, burnt-out woman is no good to herself or anybody else!

I was quoted for an article on burnout in the Vrouekeur magazine. Click here to read it.
I was also interviewed on the topic of Burnout on Radio Namaqualand. Click here to listen to it.

"The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it."

Author Unknown