Burnout – what is it, what causes it and what can we do about it?
Burnout is a hot topic. No pun intended! For example, just last week, the Metro newspaper reported on a survey which suggested that 87% of people in the UK had experienced burnout symptoms in the last 12 months. Almost three-quarters (71%) of parents of children under 16 said they were affected, and more than two-thirds (68%) of women reported feelings of burnout. No surprise, then, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has designated burnout as an occupational phenomenon adding it to their International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
The symptoms of burnout
Burnout is defined as a state of chronic stress that can lead to:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion, such as insomnia;
- Feelings of cynicism and detachment, for example, avoiding friends and family; and
- Feeling ineffective and unable to accomplish anything, feeling constantly overwhelmed.
While stress and burnout might go hand-in-hand, a study led by Christina Guthier suggests that stress has less of an impact on burnout, than burnout has on us feeling stressed. In other words, while feeling stressed doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll end up burning out but once we’re burnt out, we’re more likely to feel stressed all the time and at the littlest thing. As the worldwide study found, when we’re burnt out and exhausted, our ability to cope with stress lessens, with even the smallest task feeling overwhelming.
The American Psychological Association says clues we might be feeling stressed include tense muscles and tension headaches, with acute stress seeing us lose our breath, experience panic attacks, faster heart rate and hypertension. In fact, a 2020 study which examined the records of almost 140,000 people in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the UK, suggests that people who reported work-related stress were more likely to be hospitalised for peripheral artery disease (a narrowing of the arteries).
My own experience of burnout, almost 10 years ago, saw me being physically sick before work each morning and living on less than four hours’ sleep a night for more than a year. It was only when I admitted I needed help that things started to change.
The main causes of burnout
In my own work as a chartered occupational psychologist, I see three typical causes of burnout in the organisations I work with: excessive workload, insufficient support, and too much, badly managed change. In this article, we’ll look at the first two.
Excessive workload and demand
In 2015, the Independent newspaper reported on findings from a study commissioned by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which found that the number of people working excessive hours had increased by 15% in five years. In fact, the National Health Service (NHS) is taking the issue so seriously that they are offering free help and advice, including psychotherapy, to GP’s experiencing burnout. And in the past year, the Covid19 pandemic has affected students and teaching staff in universities around the world, with increased workload and transitioning to online learning taking its toll psychologically.
Job-Demands Resources Theory, used by organisational psychologists, suggests that the work strain many of us experience is a result of an imbalance between the demands expected of us and the resources we have available to deal with those demands. In other words, we have too much to do and not enough support to help us. The way many people respond in the face of this challenge is to work longer hours. However, working longer is not a good way to cope with excessive demands – certainly not for the long term. This can lead to workaholism and ultimately, burnout. In fact, an Italian study found that people with high work demands and insufficient resources to support them were more likely to fall into the trap of workaholism; working excessive hours just to keep on top of things. In a similar study, Monica Molino found that support from a manager or colleague could act as a buffer to excessive work demands, essentially stopping someone falling into the spiral of workaholism.
Lack of support
If excessive work demands are one part of the equation, insufficient support and resources to help us is the other part. One of the best forms of support is from a line manager, if at work, or a personal tutor, if at university. However, when the manager or tutor is ineffective, the physical and psychological effects can be serious. For example, a 20-year study of more than 6,000 male British civil servants found that when their line manager criticised them unfairly, didn’t listen to their problems, and rarely offered praise, they suffered more angina, heart attacks and deaths from heart disease. And a 10-year Swedish study of more than 3,000 workers found that those with terrible managers suffered far more heart attacks than those who had effective line managers. This doesn’t just affect those in corporate roles. A Finnish study of more than 800 factory workers showed that those reporting unfair treatment from their managers later suffered higher death rates from heart problems.
How to tackle burnout
First and foremost, overcoming burnout isn’t solely down to the individual. I get quite irritated with organisations that roll out mindfulness and wellbeing programmes and courses, believing this to be a panacea that deals with all ills. This is the equivalent of sticking a plaster over a septic wound which requires proper treatment. Just to be clear, burnout is often a result of wider societal and organisational issues and unless those are sorted out, individuals are likely to continue to experience burnout.
Advice for students
In the first instance, speak to your personal tutor about your workload to see if you can change deadlines or get other support. You can also speak to your student union representative, or your Student Union to highlight any issues with workload and find out what support is available.
Look at ways you can boost your resilience. For example, a study at the Yale-National University of Singapore, found that students with higher levels of resilience were less likely to experience burnout. The students who took part in the study went through a training programme which looked at developing five different factors:
- Approach coping in adversity (a desire to actively seek ways to solve a problem, rather than avoiding it);
- Self-belief and trust in one’s abilities;
- Effort and purpose (being motivated by a sense of purpose and a desire to work hard to attain one’s goals);
- Having good interpersonal and internal resources (including secure relationships, knowing where to find help in difficult times, and traits such as a sense of humour and a disposition to recognise one’s past successes and achievements); and
- Spirituality (attributing happenings in life, including adversity, to a higher force such as God or fate).
The programme helped increase students’ confidence in handling challenges, teaching them active problem-solving skills, and how to make the best use of external support sources (such as peer support).
Advice for managers
Make sure you have open lines of communication with your staff and pay careful attention to any behaviour changes in team members. Look out for the symptoms of burnout and if you think any of your team are experiencing this then reach out to them. Please don’t wait for them to come to you. Left too long, the effects of acute stress and burnout can be life-threatening.
Remember, you’re a role model for your team members. A study from the University of Illinois found that teachers with greater control over their work, and who were able to have boundaries between their work and personal lives were better at managing stress. A factor that amplified this was the behaviour of the leader, where those who role-model work-life balance and support staff in resolving work-life conflicts had staff who felt more in control.
Advice for staff
If you think you’re experiencing the symptoms of burnout, my best advice is that you seek help now. There is absolutely no shame in this and I speak from my own experience of the difference it can make. Ideally, your first port of call should be your manager but if you’re uncomfortable with this, speak to a trusted colleague, or if you have an occupational health function, you can speak to them. Ignoring the signs of burnout isn’t really an option. As Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter says, “Burnout isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life.”