Basics Of Burnout

The Basics of Burnout

Staff Care Consultant & Psychotherapist BEN PORTER shares some simple lessons about a complex term.

Burnout. It’s a word that’s being thrown around quite a lot these days. And our team at Thrive has been talking about it too. We’re aware that everyone seems to have a slightly different take on what it is – I’d love to share with you some of our own discussions.

For starters, there is no clinical diagnosis of “burnout”, but there are several mental illnesses that overlap with symptoms of burnout. Burnout, like most psychosocial issues, falls along a spectrum of severity from feeling worn out to total mental and physical collapse.  

Burnout saps the vital energy we need to live full lives. Similar to depression, burnout is an overwhelming sense of emptiness and lack of motivation or interest. And similar to trauma or vicarious trauma, burnout shows up as disconnection from yourself and others.

Herbert Freudenberger (who coined the term ‘burnout’ in the 1970s) defines it as: “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected rewards”.  Does that ring any bells, aid workers?

Freudenberger and Gail North posited a 12-phase development of burnout (paraphrased):

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself
  2. Working harder and an inability to switch off.
  3. Neglecting personal and social needs
  4. Displacement and deflection of conflicts
  5. Revision of values/worldview
  6. Denial of emerging psychosocial problems
  7. Withdrawaland escaping behaviors
  8. Odd behavioural changes
  9. Depersonalisation (seeing neither self nor others as valuable)
  10. Inner emptiness
  11. Depression
  12. Burnout Syndrome,which may include total mental and physical collapse.

As with all psychological frameworks, burnout doesn’t always follow this linear pathway, and these phases need further explanation. But have you noticed this pattern within yourself or a colleague?

What causes burnout and how do we avoid it?

This is the lively chat we’ve been having on the psychological and occupational health teams at Thrive Worldwide.  Is burnout an “injury” resulting from a toxic and overstretching workplace (external), or does it have to do with personality traits and motivations (internal).  Naturally, it’s usually an interplay of both (see below diagram

Dtsch Arztebl Int. (2011 Nov) Burnout: A Fashionable Diagnosis

Becoming aware of the cause and facing the reality allows us to begin to address burnout.

Here are a few factors to help untangle the main drivers for you: (Burnout: A Fashionable Diagnosis. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 2011 Nov)

  • Internal factors/personality traits
    • High (idealistic) expectations of self, high ambition, perfectionism
    • Strong need for recognition
    • Always wanting to please other people, suppressing own needs
    • Feeling irreplaceable; not wanting/able to delegate
    • Hard work and commitment to the point of overestimation of self and becoming overburdened
    • Work as the only meaningful activity, work as substitute for social life
  • External factors
    • High demands at work
    • Problems of leadership and collaboration
    • Contradictory instructions
    • Time pressure
    • Bad atmosphere at work; bullying
    • Lack of freedom to make decisions
    • Lack of influence on work organization
    • Few opportunities to participate
    • Low autonomy/right to contribute opinions
    • Hierarchy problems
    • Poor internal communication (employers, employees)
    • Administrative constraints
    • Pressure from superiors
    • Increasing responsibility
    • Poor work organization
    • Lack of resources (personnel, funding)
    • Problematic institutional rules and structures
    • Lack of perceived opportunities for promotion
    • Lack of clarity about roles
    • Lack of positive feedback
    • Poor teamwork
    • Absence of social support

If you’d like to know more about your levels of burnout, you could try taking the Headington Institute self-assessment and check your scores here.

We would love to know your experience.  Feel free to post about burnout on our Facebook page and on Twitter and we’ll join you in discussion. 

  • Have you ever felt burnt out?  
  • How did you recognise it?
  • What was the cause?
  • What has helped your feelings of burnout? 

If you are worried about your feelings of burnout, please get in touch with us—we’re here to support you. Also check out Thrive Worldwide’s resource sheets on burnout and depression here.

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