What is Burnout Syndrome?

Burnout syndrome refers to a state of exhaustion following on from long-term stress. Typically, this is work-related but burnout can occur in anyone overwhelmed by responsibilities. Some researchers believe that burnout is related to clinical depression given that both have similar symptoms (including a ‘hopeless’ mindset). Signs of burnout syndrome are listed below.

According to the American Psychological Association occupational burnout syndrome has been on the increase over the past three years. Partly this surge was due to the impact of lockdown, with health-care workers and teachers most affected.

Burnout syndrome was common in both these employment groups even before the lockdown. That may be due to the fact that these, and other groups where burnout is high, are employed by government agencies notorious for inefficient management, poor employee care, and chaotic work schedules.

However, I also see many clients with burnout who are middle/senior managers in business, board directors, or entrepreneurs working on their own. In such cases the main driver towards breakdown is workaholism. I will return to this subject below.

Signs of Burnout

Burnout syndrome is a creeping disease and early signs may not be apparent to the bearer. Rather like a frog boiling in a saucepan, sufferers may only awake to the danger too late.

Do any of these indicators apply to you?

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion most days of the week.
  • Self-neglect: with little personal time, exercise or a healthy diet.
  • A grinding routine that has been in place for more than six months, in which each day is spent on a turn-mill of work.
  • Difficulty in making decisions, procrastination, and a feeling of overwhelm.
  • Cynicism about work and life (‘same ‘sh*t, different day’).
  • Emotional disconnection from people around you (this may manifest as irritability, or numbness).
  • Feeling trapped, frustrated and helpless.

If two or more of these signs of burnout apply to you, then attention to your lifestyle is required. If you are unsure whether you have this problem, you can take the Maslach Burnout Self-test here.

In the later stages of the disorder physical health breaks down as the mind-body is overloaded with burdens.

Physical symptoms of burnout include:

  • Persistent headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Gastro-intestinal disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Medically unexplained pain
  • Insomnia
  • Anhedonia (loss of pleasure in activities)

    Anxiety and panic attacks may also feature, in addition to depressed moods

    Sources of Burnout

    The reasons for burnout are two-fold: your working environment and your personality. Typically, these interact, as high-driving, ambitious people are often attracted to organisations that pay little attention to employee welfare. Such people often rise to senior management, or board positions in which workaholism is regarded as ‘normal’. If they are self-employed their work may become all-consuming.

    Stressful work-places

    Organisations and teams where burnout is common are not confined to the public sector. They include banks, charities, law firms, start-ups, media, sales/marketing, and management consultancy. They tend to be results-driven with incentives for high-performance; no sooner has one target been met than a still harder is imposed. Overwork becomes the norm, and work-loads go on increasing at an exponential rate.

    In smaller concerns (or large teams) management may be autocratic, often centred on a ‘charismatic’ individual whose word is law, but whose dictates are often contradictory. This can lead to chaotic, unpredictable work schedules. The culture may be permeated by favouritism and cronyism, leaving employees feeling alienated from management. In larger concerns management may appear remote and bureaucratic, passing down arbitrary directives from on high.

    Training, communication and support for employees is poor in outfits like these, leaving staff confused about what they are doing – and why they are doing it. However, ‘failures’ incur blame and threats of dismissal. A culture of fear sets in, leaving people watchful, isolated, and unable to speak out. Meanwhile, work-loads increase as weak management leads to ‘fire-fighting’ one crisis after another.

    Stressful work-places are not the only source of burnout. Care-giver burnout is becoming increasingly common amongst people with responsibility for young children, for elderly parents, or both at the same time.

    Personality factors that contribute to burnout

    Why are people attracted to stressful work-places? The reasons are manifold, but include ego-cravings for status, money and success. There is nothing wrong with wanting these things, but a problem emerges when they come at the cost of mental and physical health. In the helping professions, the main problem I find is idealism. Teachers, social workers, nurses and medical doctors go into these professions because they want to improve the lives of others. That is fine, unless it leads to over-conscientiousness, whereupon helpers work themselves into the ground trying to achieve that. A problem made worse when chaotically mis-managed schools, surgeries, hospitals and social work offices heap more and more demands on their idealistic employees.

    In his book When The Body Says No Dr Gabor Mate lists a number of personality factors common in people who succumb to auto-immune disease. These same factors also apply to those at risk of burnout, irrespective of their environment:

    • People-pleasing. This relates to blurred boundaries, where people over-comply with the demands of others.
    • Perfectionism. An ego-state on which workaholism thrives.
    • Over-conscientiousness. Similar to perfectionism, except the person fears judgment by others.
    • High need for control. Another ego-state, which fears uncertainty.
    • Poor adaptability. Due to preoccupation with the above four factors, the person fails to spot that they are becoming overwhelmed.

    Key factors in Burnout syndrome

    If you suffer from ego-cravings that demand you work yourself into the ground, and are approaching burnout, then you should consult a professional in order to review your life choices.

    If, despite your best efforts to keep on top of your work-load, you are struggling then the first thing to do is consider why you are overwhelmed. The most common internal reasons (if you are an employee) are:

    • From over-conscientiousness you are accepting too many assignments for the time you have available. Answer: Negotiate work schedules and deadlines before accepting assignments.
    • From perfectionism you are taking too long to complete assignments in unnecessary detail. Answer: Learn to tolerate discomfort when your work isn’t perfect.
    • From a high-need for control you are developing anxiety over outcomes. Answer: Reduce anxiety with thought defusion.
    • From a failure to adapt to difficulty, you are not asking for help when you need it.
    • From people-pleasing you are failing to say ‘No’ often enough.

    The most common external reasons for burnout (if you are an employee) are these:

    • Chaotic management
    • Overload of work
    • Insufficient training and support for the job.
    • The procedures or deadlines provided to you are unworkable
    • Lack of support from line management
    • Little say or control over the way you work
    • Too few staff for the work in hand.
    • Problems created by other teams beyond your control.
    • Infighting between management and teams
    • Confusion over responsibilities (‘who does what’)

    Taking the first steps to recovery

    If any of the symptoms above apply to you then the first thing to do is step back and review your situation.

    What external causes have contributed to burnout?

    What internal reasons (mind and behaviour) have contributed to the problem?

    If there are external reasons, then you should consider what influence you can exert over them. For example:

    • Discussing the problem with your line manager
    • Changing your role in the organisation
    • Changing your job
    • Changing your career path

    If there are strong internal reasons that have led to burnout, then you will need to develop more resilience. Advice on resilience coaching is available here and elsewhere on this blog.

    If you have chronic fatigue, symptoms of depression or exhaustion you will most likely need to take fitness leave to recover, before considering your options.


    Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash


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