What is burnout?
Burnout is a term originally coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970’s, and it refers to a “state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Burnout is the feeling of being completely physically and emotionally drained after prolonged experience of stress. For decades, the term was reserved for those working in difficult healthcare fields, but over time psychologists learned that anybody can be affected by burnout, from the sleep-deprived parent to the overworked game developer. Burnout is categorized by three main factors: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, all of which are thought to come from engaging in behaviors that run counter to our personal values, feeling a lack of control over our environment, or having a lack of social or emotional support for an extended period of time.
What are the signs of burnout?
Burnout, much like any reaction to stress or emotional hardship, can manifest differently for each person. However, the three factors mentioned above, exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, seem to be common elements:
- Exhaustion can be described and identified as increased fatigue and physical pain. Fatigue is the constant feeling of physical exhaustion. It differs slightly from just feeling ‘tired.’ Tiredness generally goes away after a certain amount of sleeping or eating, but fatigue is a level of exhaustion that feels like no amount of sleep or food could ever help. Individuals who experience burnout also report feelings like arthritis or gastro-intestinal issues. It can also consist of pain in the muscles and joints along with stomach aches.
- Cynicism entails an overall negative attitude towards self, others, and the job place, and it can result in depersonalization and disengagement. Individuals struggling with cynicism may experience social and cognitive alienation as workers begin pulling away from others as a protective behavior. They may experience irritability with social situations and alienate themselves from family members or co-workers. Trying to depersonalize, “become a robot,” or “go through the motions” are a cognitive way to defend ourselves from the stress of burnout.
- Inefficacy can result in negative feelings of self in relation to one’s employment, skills, and abilities. Workers struggling with feelings of inefficacy experience a decrease in levels of personal accomplishment and may begin questioning why they chose this career or profession, struggling to identify their positive strengths or skillsets. These feelings can be exacerbated if the workplace presents a lack of resources or social support, and an individual could begin developing a negative view of themselves not only as a worker, but a person altogether.
How can we combat burnout?
Before we make a concrete assumption that we are experiencing burnout, it is important to reach out to a physician or mental health professional. Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with symptoms of physical issues or depression, and we need to collaborate medical professionals to rule that out.
Another important note to consider: the contemporary research shows that burnout is a systematic and organizational issue which stems from social problems as a workplace issue, not necessarily a personal issue or weakness. This means that burnout is a cultural issue which should be addressed by leadership and management instead of solely relying on self-care; however, there may be some personal strategies to apply in order to regain our personal health. Each person is individually and uniquely different, and everyone will have different ways to relax, refuel, and replenish their physical and emotional resources. That said, here are a few common techniques people use to recover from burnout:
- Creating personal and professional boundaries. There is plenty of research which shows that working more than 40 hours a week comes with diminishing returns. Scheduling and keeping breaks throughout the day is one way of setting limits on overwork. Now more than ever the overreach of the workplace into our lives through technology, phone calls, and emails has shown to increase burnout.
- Remembering self-care. Studies suggest that individuals could benefit from engaging in key elements of health and fitness while addressing burnout. In nearly any type of adventure or role-playing game, there is some form of rest or recuperation for the character. Research has shown that individuals can benefit from having a good diet, trying to get between 6-8 hours of sleep, and exercising for 30 minutes daily.
- Re-engaging in social connection. Humans are social creatures, and research shows that our workplace has become one of our main experiences of social interaction. Some employees have found solace and camaraderie by attempting to develop stronger personal relationships with co-workers by finding opportunities for interaction and socialization by finding time to eat together, reaching out for coffee breaks, or attending social events (in person or virtually).
Burnout can be an isolating and frustrating experience, but it’s important to not lose hope! By identifying the symptoms of burnout, reaching out for medical or professional support, and re-engaging in self-care and boundary-setting, we can begin to turn the tides of fatigue and return to feeling like ourselves.
Drew Lightfoot is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Regional Clinical Director from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is also a professor of psychology and healthcare research at La Salle University and Wilmington University, and spends most of his free time playing old video games or DMing Dungeons & Dragons sessions. He can be followed on Twitter as @GamerShrinks.