Burnout For Dummies
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The term burnout was first coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. It is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon” that is “… a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

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In that definition, the WHO says burnout is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy
The WHO definition goes on to state that “burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” In modern society, however, the line between work and “other areas of life” has sufficiently blurred. These days, it is really unfair to talk concretely about “work-life balance” or to imply that burnout would only arise from your job, if, for example, you are a parent, the primary caregiver for an aging parent, or a volunteer leader of a community organization.

I say that burnout arises out of your attempts to fulfill your obligations of any kind. Indeed, burnout is not exclusive to work. It is a stress-related issue, and you can, therefore, arrive at burnout as a result of the cumulative effect of stress from too many obligations in any area of your life.

What burnout is not

Putting aside this little shift to looking at all of your obligations as potential sources of burnout, it can be valuable to focus on figuring out what burnout is and also what it is not, so you can invest your time and attention in addressing the larger challenge itself and not waste your effort on “Band-Aid fixes.”

What I’m suggesting here is the equivalent of “work smarter, not harder,” and getting a better sense of what you are trying to improve or correct will help you be more effective in reducing burnout and increasing satisfaction in your life.

Taking pain medication to address the symptoms of a shoulder injury can certainly help dull the pain, but appreciating that the pain comes from a broken bone will go a lot further toward long-term relief of the pain. Appreciating the source of burnout versus the symptoms can help you be more effective.

You can see in the WHO definition that the term “burnout” addresses a syndrome that results from chronic stress from your obligations. It’s worthwhile to unpack those two terms a bit further to appreciate both the depth and the seriousness of burnout and begin to highlight some ways to reduce it in your life.

A syndrome is defined as a group of symptoms that consistently occur together or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms, traits, or distinctive features. Because these traits or symptoms occur in a kind of cluster of unpleasantness, chasing after one or the other of them is not likely to address the true underlying cause, even if relieving one of them could feel good in the moment.

Considering the extent of the feelings

Many people today feel distraught, overwhelmed, and anxious as a result of managing through the COVID-19 pandemic and financial and global uncertainty. You may be one of them. Are you tired and worried, but still have time and energy to enjoy your life; do you feel more or less satisfied at work and feel rejuvenated after a good weekend getaway (that you can afford)?

Or are you are feeling profoundly exhausted? It feels like there isn’t enough time in the day to meet all of your obligations.

Perhaps your mother is unwell and requires frequent doctor’s visits or around-the-clock care, your new boss is extremely demanding and unforgiving, and you feel more and more like a failure and not good enough. Your body aches, you worry about getting COVID-19, and you can’t remember when you had a full night’s sleep. You want a break but don’t see one in sight as your family relies on your income. Will a night out with friends help? Maybe a mani-pedi or a massage?

The real question is whether quick fixes can actually address your deep feelings of exhaustion or cynical attitude in any meaningful way. They may help you feel somewhat better … for a while, but in the end, you’re likely to find (or you’ve already found) that these are drops in a bucket that is far bigger than a single act can fill.

This isn’t an argument for not doing these things, but just a way of saying that a complex challenge like burnout calls for a broader approach if you really want to turn the tide.

Burnout isn’t like a headache or a sore muscle that can be treated with a pill or a massage. It isn’t something that happens because you have a rough day, nor is it having to do a difficult thing as part of your obligations (even if it is distasteful or downright degrading). Rather, it’s more complex and a reflection of something more chronic and insidious that requires deeper care and support.

What makes burnout so complex

The other key word in the WHO definition is chronic. A chronic syndrome is one that has persisted for a long time or constantly recurs and is hard to eradicate.

What this term chronic suggests is that there are no quick fixes to a problem that has been something like a constant (and difficult) companion to you for a while. It’s been around for so long, in fact, that it has graced you with myriad health issues that may have driven you to seek medical care — when you can get there — and when you can’t, to popping pills or self-medicating with food or alcohol.

It’s important to note one more aspect of the WHO definition before moving on. It states that burnout “is not classified as a medical condition.” The significance of this statement is that there is no clear treatment for it, and it is considered a factor “… influencing health status or contact with health services.” In practical terms, this brings up two important points:

  • Burnout may very well drive you to the doctor (who may or may not recognize your complaints as burnout or know exactly how to treat it)
  • It has very real physical health consequences, nonetheless, well beyond the specific symptoms you may experience.
The medical consequences of burnout are huge and widespread. Note, however, that they are symptoms and add to the complexity of burnout, but they do not constitute burnout in of themselves.

Here’s a helpful table to differentiate bad feelings or bad days from true burnout.

Not Burnout Burnout
You have a bad day. Every day is a bad day.
Caring about things feels hard. Caring about your life feels like a total waste of energy.
You’re tired. You’re exhausted all the time.
You have some dull or difficult tasks to do routinely. The majority of your day is consumed with mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming tasks.
You wonder if you’re making a difference. You feel like nothing you do makes a difference and nobody appreciates what you do.
You have doubts and are sometimes pessimistic. You (or your colleagues) find you to be cynical and a “Debbie Downer.”

About This Article

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About the book author:

Eva Selhub is a board-certified physician, speaker, scientist, executive leadership and performance coach, and a consultant in the field of corporate wellness and resilience. She focuses on helping individuals and corporations alike to become resilient, avoid or manage burnout, and achieve transformational health and wellbeing. She has been published in medical journals and featured in national publications including The New York Times and USA Today.

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