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Is burnout creeping up on you?

20 November 2013

± minute read

    Is burnout creeping up on you?
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It all started with much excitement, enthusiasm and passion.

A number of years ago my friend, let’s call her Sarah, completed her studies to become a teacher, a job that she has wanted to do since she was little. She loved the idea of being able to contribute to the education of children and make a difference in their lives. Once qualified, Sarah worked hard to make teaching interesting and fun. She was always well prepared for her classes, and the students loved her. Although it meant a lot of additional work, she agreed to become the guidance teacher for her school, as she believed that the pupils - who at her school often came from broken homes - needed additional support. She also initiated a dance class (after official school hours) which was very popular, and which regularly featured at school events.

She really loved her job; it energised her and kept her fulfilled, until...

This ideal work environment changed dramatically when the long standing headmaster relocated, and a new headmaster took over the running of the school. The new headmaster ruled by fear, and by creating mistrust among the teachers. The atmosphere among the teachers was one of uncertainty and self-preservation. Her workload increased dramatically, as there were an insufficient number of teachers at the school which resulted in longer over-time and additional stress. Every day became a battle, with her doubting her ability, and mental and physical exhaustion eroding her capacity to function as a teacher, until finally she became completely unable to fulfil her job. Over time she had slowly but surely run herself into the ground and to a complete standstill, without fully understanding how this could have happened to her.

What is burnout?

Currently there is no consensus on the concept of burnout. One of the most widely used instruments that measure burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). It measures burnout based on three independent constructs:

  • Exhaustion refers to the feelings of being depleted of one’s emotional resources. A person feels overextended both physically and emotionally. He or she lacks energy to face the day and constantly feels tired. Exhaustion is seen as the first reaction to stressful job demands or major life changes.
  • Cynicism refers to a negative, cynical or excessively detached response to other people at work. It often results in minimal involvement at work and in giving up on ideals. Cynicism is used to protect oneself from exhaustion and disappointment. This represents the interpersonal component of burnout.
  • Ineffectiveness refers to feelings of a decline in one’s competence and productivity and to a lowered sense of self-efficacy. Every new project seems overwhelming. The wold seems to conspire against each attempt to make progress, which results in a loss of confidence in the ability to make a difference. This represents the self-evaluation component of burnout

A number of different conceptualisations have been offered, which are not only restricted to the work context. Pines and Aronson (1988, p 9) define burnout as a” state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations”, such as marital relationships (Pines, 1988, 1996), and the aftermath of political conflicts (Pines, 1993). The Burnout Measure (BM) views burnout as a syndrome of symptoms that include helplessness, hopelessness, entrapment, decreased enthusiasm, irritability, and a sense of lowered self-esteem. Shirom (2003) relates burnout to energetic resources only and covers physical, emotional and cognitive energies. According to this model, burnout is most likely to occur in situations where there is an actual or perceived threat of resource loss, or when one fails to obtain resources to offset those lost. The Shirom-Melamed Burnout Measure (SMBM) conceptualises burnout along three facets; physical fatigue (i.e. feeling of tiredness and low energy), emotional exhaustion (i.e. lacking the energy to display empathy to others, and cognitive weariness (i.e. one’s feeling of reduced mental agility). Despite these different conceptualisations, the core content of burnout is a reaction to stress, which over time results in the gradual depletion of a person’s intrinsic energy resources, and results in emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue and mental weariness.

Reasons for burnout

Burnout is on the increase because of changes in the workplace. Technology (internet, e-mails, and cell phones) requires us to be available at all times and often blurs the line between work and home life. Increased globalisation (e.g. moving businesses to where labour costs are cheaper), and the recent global economic crisis have resulted in job insecurity for many people. Within the South African context additional stress results from traffic (long distances to work and back), high crime rates, a volatile labour market, and a government with a lack of focus due to internal politics. According to Maslach and Leiter (1997), in today’s society economic values are often placed ahead of human values. What inspires us and makes us get up in the morning is ignored or played down. Burnout is often present when there is a mismatch between the job and the nature of the person doing the job. This mismatch can be experienced in a number of areas: Work overload – Increasingly, less people have to do more and more work (downsizing after the global economic crisis has affected many companies) at a faster pace (cell phones, e-mails, and internet). In the case of Sarah, she was required to mark more than 150 + essays (5 classes with 30+ pupils each) per term, which was only possible by her working every weekend. Lack of control – Often people are unable to control or influence decisions that affect their job. Strict rules and regulations and tight monitoring do not allow for people to take the initiative. In the case of Sarah, the school’s rules and regulations required her to complete marking each essay within three weeks. Otherwise she was forced to re-write and re-mark it – an almost impossible undertaking. Lack of reward – Lack of recognition (money, public praise, etc.) can lead to a person feeling devalued. Sarah, during her time at her new school, was not once recognised publicly for her work by her headmaster. The only time she communicated with her headmaster was when he called her into his office to give orders or complain about some issue. Lack of community – The sense of a lack of community is the result of loss of positive connection with others in the workplace. In the case of Sarah, the atmosphere among her work colleagues was dominated by fear. Every teacher was concerned only with him- or herself to ensure that he or she got her work done on time. Team-work, camaraderie and humour did not exist. Lack of fairness – Fairness in the workplace refers to people being shown respect and confirming their self-worth. Clearly this was not the case in Sarah’s situations. Teachers were not seen as human beings but rather as cogs in the wheel that had to function on demand. Conflicts in values – Value conflicts occur when there is a mismatch between the requirements of the job and a person’s principles. Sarah, who had become a teacher to provide quality education and make a positive difference in her pupils’ lives, barely managed to get through her curriculum. Quality interactions outside the class room with students were almost impossible.

Diagnosed with burnout

Looking at Sarah’s work situation it is clear that there was a complete imbalance between the job demands and what she was able to provide. The enormous amount of stress combined with a toxic work atmosphere manifested itself in a number of symptoms:

  • She was unable to sleep, which resulted in constant tiredness and exhaustion.
  • She developed stress related stomach problems.
  • Her constant lack of time led to unhealthy eating habits.
  • Her lowered immune system meant that she picked up every cold or bug that was around.
  • She also completely withdrew from her family and friends.

In addition, she felt ineffective and lost confidence in her ability to make a difference, because her workload did not allow her to interact with her students the way she would have liked to. For her, the human element of teaching was completely removed. On another level she felt not as “good” as her colleagues, who seemed to be coping much better than she did. In turn she felt she had to prove herself and tried even harder to complete her workload on time and address some of her pupils’ needs. Inevitably, one morning she was unable to get out of bed. Her husband took her to the doctor, who diagnosed her with burnout and booked her off for a number of weeks. This was almost two years ago. Today, she is on the road to recovery. She has reduced her working hours and she is going for therapy, which has helped her to find perspective in her life, and taught her to put herself first. She has started spending more time with her family and friends and feels much happier.

So why am I telling you all this?

In Sarah’s case, burnout crept up on her over a number of years. Her symptoms developed over a long period. She never shared her concerns with her family and friends, and although we saw her distress, we did not connect the dots. So if this story resonates with you or you know of someone else, who displays some of the above symptoms, please do something before the stress develops into full blown burnout. Sarah’s advice to you would be: don’t wait until it is too late, seek support (something she did not do), and look at ways and options to change the situation. It may not be easy, but your well-being depends on it.



Maslach, C. & Jackson, S.E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 2(2), 99-113. Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E. & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual (3rd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press. Maslach, C. , & Leiter , M. P. (1997). The truth about burnout. How organisations cause personal stress and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Maslach, C. Schaufel, W.B., & Leiter.M.P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. Doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397. Pines, A. (1988). Keeping the spark alive: Preventing burnout in love and marriage. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press. Pines, A. (1993). Burnout. In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds.), Handbook of stress (2nd ed., pp. 386-402). New York, NY: Free Press. Pines, A. (1996). Couple burnout. New York, NY: Routledge. Pines, A. Aronson, E., & Kafry, D (1991). Burnout: From tedium to personal growth. New York, NY: Free Press. Shirom, A. (2003). Job-related burnout. In J.C. Quick & L.E. Tetrick (Eds.) Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 245-264). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Shirom, A. (2011). Job related burnout: A review of major research foci and challenges. In J.C. Quick & L.E. Tetrick (Eds.) Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 223-241). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

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