Be aware of the fires that cause burnout

Be aware of the fires that cause burnout

February 26, 2019

Authored by: Dr Karina de Bruin, Managing Director: JvR Academy and Counselling Psychologist


The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings with it technological advances and innovation that are not only changing the world we live in, but also the world we work in.  This new world offers an abundance of opportunities, but its unfamiliarity also creates uncertainty in our lives. Too much uncertainty leads to anxiety, which often escalates into uncontrolled stress, emotional exhaustion, and eventually burnout.

The spiral

Most people have occasionally experienced feelings of anxiety in their lives. Although it is normal to have feelings of anxiety at particular times, it may become a problem when it is excessive and prevents someone from coping with everyday tasks and enjoying life.

Stress is the degree to which one feels overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of (both good and bad) life or work experiences. If people are highly stressed, their bodies react by releasing stress hormones into the blood and activate a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

Long-term, accumulated stress often leads to emotional exhaustion, where you find yourself in a state of feeling emotionally overwhelmed, empty, and drained.

The symptoms of emotional exhaustion are not only on an emotional level, but can also be physical. They include lack of motivation, irritability, physical fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, absent-mindedness, apathy, headaches, change in appetite, nervousness, sleep disturbances, concentration problems, irrational anger, and depression.

Emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.  Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson constructed the Maslach Burnout Inventory which explains occupational burnout through three interrelated components, namely emotional exhaustion, feelings of depersonalisation or detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.

The difference between the signs of stress and burnout is only a matter of degree. Burnout slowly stalks us and announces itself once it is too late.  So, the earlier one recognises the signs, the better one can manage it to avoid burnout.

The signs

Burnout, when left unchecked, can destroy your career, health, and relationships.

However, there are ways to find out when you are on the path to burnout.  Ask yourself the following questions and be honest about those you have answered yes.

  • Do you experience a lack of energy and feel tired most of the time?
  • Do you often struggle to fall asleep or to stay asleep – even when you are tired?
  • Do you skip meals because you do not feel hungry? Do you lose weight without wanting or having to?
  • Are you forgetful and struggle to concentrate on your work?
  • Do you have colds, flu, and infections more often than usually?
  • Do you feel tense, anxious, or irritable without any specific reason?
  • Do you miss deadlines at work?

Manage it

Employees have a responsibility toward their employers to perform at their best and if they are not able to do so, because of whatever reason, to discuss it with their supervisors. This is not always an easy task.

However, trusting relationships are excellent resources for coping effectively with stress and anxiety.  Have courage and be open and honest about how you feel and what you think. Your supervisor should realise that personal well-being has an impact on the business: figures from Statistics South Africa show that absenteeism costs companies between R12bn and R16bn per annum – much of that relates to workplace stress, the burnout syndrome, and employee wellness.

Many workplaces offer support through employee assistance programmes or provide mental health resources in the community to help employees manage stress factors.

Stay well

Although burnout is not a permanent state, it takes quite a long time to recover. And if not managed properly, it is possible to go down the same path again.

As a first step, be attuned to your body and your emotions. If you experience some of the signs and symptoms, and if your friends and colleagues tell you that you are showing these symptoms, acknowledge the fact that you may be suffering from burnout, or are on your way there.

Identify the root causes of stress in your life. Use a stress diary to list all the situations that make you feel stressed, worried, and helpless. For each of these stressors, think about one change that you can make to reduce its impact on your life – and implement those.

Learn to say ‘no’, delegate some of your tasks, and trust that the tasks will be completed successfully.

Create a support system through friends and family, and use it. Social support is one of the most important resources in trying to overcome the harmful impact of stress in our lives. On a very basic level, make sure that you get enough good sleep, exercise regularly, and eat healthy.

Remember, stress does not have to be negative. If managed effectively, it can be a motivator and contribute to a healthy, successful life.

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