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RECOGNIZING THE 3 KEY SIGNS OF BURNOUT

DR. JAN NEWMAN

When it comes to work, most people aren’t skipping gleefully to their jobs or responsibilities every single day.

Some disdain is normal, but too many stressful days or months in a row can throw your body and mind into a bad case of burnout.

Sometimes your work environment—an office, a playing field, a classroom, or a lab—has elements that are directly causing you stress.

In these situations, the first question is, what can I control?

The only thing within our immediate control is our behavior—what we say and do. Sometimes, we can learn and use strategies to cope with stressful work environments.

These strategies might include using strategies you can directly control, like practicing parasympathetic recovery and prioritizing sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise.

Sometimes, although you can’t control the people you work with and around on a dime, you can influence people by using interpersonal effectiveness skills such as asserting your needs, setting boundaries, and delegating and saying no.

Sometimes you can try to do all these things and still come up short, and you may have to make more challenging decisions about your work environment.

Recognizing whether you need to change aspects of your life or whether you need to change your responses and learn new skills and habits is critical.

One of the first rules in tackling burnout is remembering: you can’t control the uncontrollable.

But for now, let’s find out how to recognize burnout itself.

What Exactly is Burnout?

There are many different types of burnout, but the most common, and the one we’re focusing on here, is ‘workplace burnout’. In 2019, the World Health Organization defined burnout as a result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”*

*This study uses a broader definition of work, including unpaid employment such as internships and volunteering. Researchers have also started to study burnout in parents/caregivers.

They recognized three key dimensions of burnout:

  • feelings of energy depletion/ exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance (apathy) or cynicism surrounding the work
  • reduced professional efficacy.

 
Chronic stress is a common thread throughout these three dimensions, and the burnout literature. When your sympathetic nervous system is activated from an overabundance of intense, relentless stress/anxiety over long periods without a recovery period, the system shorts out.

Your nervous system tries to adapt, yet at this point, the parasympathetic nervous system is on the blink. The parasympathetic nervous system is the anti-lock brakes, if you will, for sympathetic activation. This system switches on the relaxation response to reduce arousal. Now, it’s struggling to keep up and fails to regulate arousal until it’s too late. When it finally kicks in, it has a complicated effect. Many people think burnout will look like fast-paced stress with signs of hyperactivity, reactivity, and restlessness. Yet, typically for most people, that’s the stage that precedes the burnout stage.

The 3 Key Signature Signs of Burnout

Burnout looks a little different for everyone, yet here are what the symptoms of the three common dimensions look like that are nearly always present in some combination;

1. Energy Depletion/Exhaustion

When you’re in a state of tension and overstimulation for long periods, your brain’s resources for motivation and energy eventually get depleted until there is little left. Think about clenching a muscle for a long time – eventually, you can’t hold it any longer because you’re just too tired, so your body gives way and softens, leaving you feeling like useless jello.

In a study of primary care staff, exhaustion was defined as “a severe and serious loss of energy, both physical as well as mental.” Someone with this symptom has reached their limits.

Exhaustion is frequently linked to external stressors at work, such as:

  • responsibility overload

  • lack of resources and support

  • lack of unity/workplace culture

  • poor skill utilization

  • workplace harassment/discrimination

  • insufficient family resources

  • pressure to meet expectations

  • interpersonal difficulties

  • salary/scheduling changes

  • role confusion

A contributing factor to exhaustion within your control is practicing parasympathetic recovery skills and prioritizing sleep, diet, and exercise. If your job is critically limiting your ability to do these things, then, again, what can you control?

Would you be willing to talk to a supervisor or colleague about shifting your workload or your hours?

Would you be willing to practice checking in with clients when you suspect they’re setting “fake deadlines” due to their own stress and overactive sympathetic nervous system and see if they’d be willing to push something out?

Burnout doesn’t play around. If the external stressors continue to outstrip your internal resources, if you don’t stop them, your body and brain will stop you.

Resources:

  • For podcast and video resources on how to heal your nervous system from the inside out and better manage stress, please check out our article here.

2. Increased Mental Distance, Apathy, or Cynicism

Venting about work here and there can be normal and healthy; no aspect of your life will always be perfect. If you find yourself obsessing, unable to let go of things or work towards solving an issue – so much so that it impedes your everyday life and relationships outside of work – then it’s time to figure out how to change the situation or change your response.

When you leave work, most of the time, you should be able to be present in the other facets of your life easily by using some skills and strategies.

When I was a young lawyer, I used to find myself holed up in the office for longer than necessary, mutually sharing gripes and complaints and ‘war stories’ with coworkers about the day that had passed. Often, I was painfully aware of the irony of staying somewhere I wanted very much to leave even longer while doing something that made me feel worse. I wasn’t sure how to stop the cycle. I tried things like politely changing the subject or signaling that I needed to leave, but it didn’t work.

My partner would call about my lateness, and I didn’t see at the time how much the stress was sucking me in like quicksand, robbing me of my excess time and energy. I felt trapped. I didn’t have the skills I do now to effectively call out the behavior to my friends at work and do it in a way that felt aligned with my values of kindness and compassion.

For most people I work with, this is a crucial point. It’s not your fault. You are not bad or flawed because this is happening. It’s usually a problem of needing to learn how to do this stuff because no one ever taught you. You’re not the problem. It’s your process.

For some, venting and complaining are an outlet for their frustration. Yet there are rare circumstances where those behaviors don’t produce an unhealthy overall outlook. Negativity has been shown to be connected to external stressors more than internal dysregulation. Talking about external stressors becomes inherently reinforcing*. This strategy can trick your brain into releasing some dopamine because it’s like you are doing something instead of doing nothing.

*Geek alert: This type of reinforcement is negative reinforcement where engaging in a behavior (complaining) functions to reduce or eliminate an aversive stimulus (sucky work environment).

Feelings of frustration and overstimulation can also lead to emotional difficulties, resulting in a reduced capacity to regulate one’s emotional processes and physiological signs of increased sympathetic arousal and difficult emotions like anger, fear, shame, regret, and sadness. Maybe you find yourself snapping at coworkers quickly, having panic attacks out of nowhere, or crying at minor confrontations.

On the flip side, avoidance is another way our burnout manifests within our worldview. We can detach from the stress altogether, becoming distanced from our motivation. If we aren’t investing anything in it, we have nothing to lose, right? Giving up, opting out, or mentally checking out of the issue sometimes seems like the best way to deal, or sometimes it just happens subconsciously, but spoiler – it’s not.

Some workers, like healthcare workers, may find themselves with ‘compassion fatigue’, where the pain of attaching and caring for someone who may never be able to care for themselves or fully recover. Research shows that the process of compassion fatigue looks like an eventual decreased empathy, leading to decreased engagement. If you work in healthcare or education long enough, you inevitably learn that you can’t save every patient or student.

Feeling detached can create thoughts that sound like this:

● “Is what I’m doing worth all the sacrifices?”

● “Does what I do matter?”

● “What’s the point – is this all there is?”

● “Sometimes I just feel like I’m going through the motions.”

When thoughts like these become persistent, and you notice corresponding feelings of boredom or dread about work, it’s a sign that you’re becoming burned out. If you’re frequently experiencing the “Sunday Scaries,” when the thought of restarting the workweek occurs, something’s wrong – it may be time to check in to consider next steps, which could mean self-help or seeing a mental health professional.

3. Reduced Sense of Professional Efficacy

Interestingly, the research has shown that reduced professional efficacy is NOT closely associated with external stressors at work.

Instead, it is MORE associated with:

  • decreased meta-awareness (observing the present moment),

  • ineffective coping strategies for emotional dysregulation, and

  • negative thought patterns such as rumination.

This would mean that reversing and/or preventing this sign of burnout would be helped most by:

  • enhancing awareness of one’s ongoing experience in the present moment (observing thoughts with curious detachment)

  • utilizing effective emotion regulation techniques

  • using effective cognitive strategies to reduce rumination

While nothing can happen without awareness and emotion regulation, rumination is often at the root of the cognitive aspects of burnout.

In periods of chronic stress or burnout, you have a reduced capacity to regulate cognitive processes like memory and attention adequately. Some researchers have suggested a common culprit to the reduced cognitive functioning found in burnout is increased rumination.

What is rumination?

Rumination is when you obsess on a thought from the past or present over and over without doing anything. It’s a negative feedback loop that doesn’t lead to solutions; it just replays an issue. It leverages the brain’s default mode network, which is an executive network with many helpful functions (e.g., creativity, brainstorming) yet some that can lead us astray (e.g., mind-wandering).

When we’re not aware of what’s happening, we’re unable to leverage the network for tasks where we need it, such as creative tasks, and pivot from it for tasks when we don’t like those requiring memory and focus.

Feeling less sharp, even without rumination, is still a sign of burnout and a lack of self-esteem surrounding accomplishments. Pursuing small goals and celebrating those wins activates a dopamine release, but when those good endorphins are depleted, we don’t get that same association.

When we’re tired, we feel less capable of triumphing over hurdles, and when we finally do, we’re too exhausted to celebrate.

Burnout is typically caused by a mixture of internal and external factors that leave a person feeling out of balance. Finding balance through external adjustments (advocating for our needs, asking for a raise, transferring offices, etc.) and using awareness and self-regulation is the key to taking back control and power over our surroundings.

Resources:

  • If you’re struggling with caregiver burnout, please read our article on emotional awareness for parents and another article on the problem with yelling at your kids and how to stop it.

  • Read our article on how to use Star Wars to regulate emotion.

And the good news . . .

Burnout is something that you can absolutely overcome and learn to prevent.

The first task is to identify it. For more self-mastery, please read our article on ways to slay stress and banish burnout here with video and podcast resources included!

Can you identify any of these signs in yourself or someone that you care about?

References

Hartley, C., & Coffee, P. (2019). Perceived and received dimensional support: Main and stress-buffering effects on dimensions of burnout. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1724.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2021). How to measure burnout accurately and ethically. Harvard Business Review, 7.

Maslach Burnout Inventory Assessments.

Schaufeli, W. B., Desart, S., & De Witte, H. (2020). Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT)—development, validity, and reliability. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(24), 9495.

Schaufeli, W. B., & Salanova, M. (2007). Efficacy or inefficacy, that’s the question: Burnout and work engagement, and their relationships with efficacy beliefs. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 20(2), 177-196.

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