Due to pressures of both materialism, the significance given to personal achievement and perception of what success is in Western Society, burnout is on the rise. Most people perceive success in relation to what we own, and how far up the status ladder we can climb. It’s a narrative deeply conditioned into the ideals of Western Culture.
This narrative of what ‘success’ is, is putting more and more pressure on young people to ‘succeed’, and due to the way some corporate companies are run make it more likely for someone suffering from burnout to end up in therapy with chronic stress, anxiety and depression, amongst other health issues.
So what is Burnout?
Burnout syndrome was coined by the late Herbert J. Freudenberger, a psychoanalyst in the early 1970’s. Freudenberger noticed the syndrome in himself when he noticed himself becoming tired and frustrated with the job that he had once enjoyed. He soon noticed that other doctors around him seemed to exhibit less than empathetic behaviour towards their patients. Outside of the medical profession, he also noticed that other professionals displayed a common set of symptoms including disturbed sleep, fluctuations of mood problems including aches and pains and digestive problems.
Freudenberger defined burnout syndrome as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.
Burnout syndrome isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, but instead comes under the category of ‘undifferentiated somatoform disorder.’ As there is no research-based statistics to substantiate its existence, many practitioners within the medical profession are unable to treat it as a condition. However, what IS clear are the effects long-term stress can have on an individual’s psychological and physical health when living in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn state continuously - also known as ‘survival mode’.
Burnout has a tendency to affect people who have the most willing, committed and enthusiastic attitude for their work; people that go ‘the extra mile’ for others and their company. These same people are also very likely to attach their identity (or atleast a very large part of it) to their work.
Burnout isn’t an overnight thing, but rather something that creeps up on us slowly over time as an individual starts to compensate for their fatigue by putting in more hours at work, at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. This may include not eating properly or ignoring their need for leisure time. People in the midst of burnout may also neglect their relationships external from work, as well as spending less and less time with their family (and children if they have them). All of which help us as individuals to sustain a balanced state of mind and body.
It is commonly found that the characteristics that make us successful, can also be the same characteristics that can make us susceptible to burnout. It’s important for each individual to understand their own behavioural patterns and energy levels and how to better manage them in order to achieve effectiveness long-term. This will vary from person-to-person.
It’s important to be aware of the signs of burnout so you can monitor your psychological (emotional and mental) state, as well as your physical state in response to your day and your work.
What are the signs of Burnout Syndrome?
Herbert Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North divided the process into 12 phases. Some of which may be skipped or experienced at the same time as each other, as well as the time spent in each phase varying with each person. The stages are as follows:
Stage 1: Compulsion to prove oneself
This includes excessive ambition and a desire to prove oneself leading to determination and compulsion.
Stage 2: Working harder
In an effort to prove oneself, the person takes on more work and becomes obsessed with handling the work themselves, hoping they are perceived as irreplaceable.
Stage 3: Neglecting one’s own needs
Things like sleep, nutrition and socialising are deemed unimportant - seen as proof of their commitment and excellent performance.
Stage 4: Displacement of conflicts
An awareness that something isn’t right, but unable to identify the source of the problem. At this stage physical symptoms can begin to emerge.
Stage 5: Revision of values
The previous important parts of the person’s life are dismissed such as a client being more important than one’s family and friends.
Stage 6: Denial of emerging problems
Intolerance of others is seen, affecting the perception of clients as well as family, friends and colleagues. Pressures are seen to be caused by a lack of time and the demands work is putting on them. Cynicism and aggression can become a part of the person’s life at this stage.
Stage 7: Withdrawal
Social contact is reduced to a minimum. Feelings of hopelessness occur. Working habits can become more obsessive and a person may start to become more reliant on substances such as drugs, alcohol and sugary food.
Stage 8: Obvious behavioural changes
Other people can no longer ignore the changes in the person as the person becomes shy and apathetic with internal feelings of worthlessness.
Stage 9: Depersonalisation
The person can no longer see their needs or the needs of others, seeing everyone as worthless. They can only focus on the present and life becomes a set of mechanical activities.
Stage 10: Inner emptiness
In order to counteract the emptiness felt inside, the person may seek activities including; over eating, excessive alcohol and drug use, and exaggerated sexuality - leisure time that doesn’t involve these activities isn’t engaged in.
Stage 11: Depression
Any of the symptoms of depression can manifest including hopelessness, indifference and exhaustion.
Stage 12: Burnout Syndrome
Suicidal thoughts can intrude as a means of escape. Total mental and physical collapse is seen. Medical attention needs to be taken at this point.
It is important that we as individuals learn our own limits and gauge how we are feeling towards ourselves, clients/customers, and those around us.
Burnout is a common factor in any presenting issue in a client coming to therapy, as well as a risk to many professions.