If you said you were suffering from ‘burnout’ in the early 1970s, you might have raised some eyebrows.
At the time, the term was used informally to describe the side effects that heavy drug users experienced: the general dimming of the mental faculties, for example, as was the case with many a party animal. However, when German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first recognised the problem of burnout in New York City in 1974, at a clinic for addicts and homeless people, Freudenberger wasn’t thinking of drug users.
The clinic’s volunteers were actually struggling, too: their work was intense, and many were beginning to feel demotivated and emotionally drained. Though they had once found their jobs rewarding, they had become cynical and depressed; they weren’t giving their patients the attention they deserved. Freudenberger defined this alarming new condition as a state of exhaustion caused by prolonged overwork – and borrowed the term ‘burnout’ to describe it.
Burnout has three elements: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work
Its popularity was explosive, and today burnout is a global phenomenon. Although statistics on the prevalence of burnout specifically are hard to come by, 595,000 people in the UK alone suffered from workplace stress in 2018.
Sportspeople get it. YouTube stars get it. Entrepreneurs get it. Freudenberger himself eventually got it. Late last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the trendy problem will be recognised in the latest International Classification of Diseases manual, where it is described as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
According to the WHO, burnout has three elements: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work. But waiting until you’re already fully burned out to do something about it doesn’t help at all –and you wouldn’t wait to treat any other illness until it was too late.
Feeling the burn
So how can you tell if you’re almost – but not quite – burned out?
“A lot of the signs and symptoms of pre-burnout would be very similar to depression,” says Siobhán Murray, a psychotherapist based in County Dublin, Ireland, and the author of a book about burnout, The Burnout Solution. Murray suggests looking out for creeping bad habits, such as increased alcohol consumpution and relying on sugar to get you through the day. Also watch out for feelings of tiredness that won’t go away. “So that even if you do sleep well, by 10 in the morning you’re already counting down the hours to bed. Or not having the energy to exercise or go for a walk.”
Although there are many treatment options for depression, burnout is still best tackled by making lifestyle changes
As soon as you begin to feel this way, Murray advises going to see your doctor.
“Depression and pre-burnout are very similar, but as much as there was a lot of enthusiasm recently that burnout has now become a medical condition, it is still not – it is still classified as an occupational phenomenon.” It’s important to get help from a medical professional who can distinguish between the two, because although there are many treatment options for depression, burnout is still best tackled by making lifestyle changes.
The work environment itself can contribute to the feeling of burnout, especially when workers feel intense time pressure and very little support (Credit: Alamy)
And how do you know if you’re really on the cusp of burnout, or just going through a challenging month? “Stress is really important, and anxiety is what motivates us to do well,” says Murray. “It’s when we’re continually exposed to stress and anxiety, that we’re not letting go, that it starts to turn into burnout.”
Take that big project you’ve been working on. It’s normal to feel a kick of adrenaline when you think about it, and maybe it’s kept you up at night. But, Murray suggests, if you still feel restless once it’s over, it’s time to consider if you’re at risk of burnout. “It’s when you’re bringing that with you into the next stage of your day, and adding to it continually,” she says.
When we're continually exposed to stress and anxiety, that we’re not letting go, that it starts to turn into burnout – Siobhán Murray
Another classic sign of inching closer to burnout is cynicism: feeling like your work has little value, avoiding social commitments and becoming more susceptible to disappointment.
“Someone on the brink will probably begin to feel emotionally numbed or mentally distant,” says Jacky Francis Walker, a psychotherapist based in London who specialises in burnout. “Like they don’t have the capacity to engage as much in the ordinary things of life.”
She also recommends looking for the final tell-tale sign of burnout, which is the unshakeable feeling that the quality of your work is beginning to slip. “People say ‘but this isn’t me!’, ‘I’m not like this’, ‘I can usually do x,y and z’. But obviously if they are in a state of physical depletion, then they aren’t in their normal range of capabilities,” says Walker.
If this seems less than scientific, look to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a test designed to measure burnout. The most widely used is the MBI-General Survey, which measures things like exhaustion, cynicism, and some how well you think you’re doing at work.
First published in 1981, it has been cited hundreds of times in studies since. Although it’s typically used to measure burnout once it's in full swing, there’s no reason you can't apply it to see if you’re getting close.
You’re pre-burnout: What’s next?
The only way to stop burnout – and banish it for good – is to root out the underlying problem.
“What do you have going on in your life that you can temporarily or permanently let go of? It might be [sleeping a lot] to recover from the physical signs of burnout, for example,” Murray says.
To identify pre-burnout, watch out for creeping bad habits, such as drinking more and relying on sugar to get you through the day (Credit: Alamy)
Walker has a three-step programme, which includes figuring out why there is a mismatch between what a person can offer and what they feel they are being asked to give. “Sometimes it’s because they feel the need to be too perfect, or they might have imposter syndrome where they’re having to work very hard to cover up that they’re not quite as good as everyone thinks.”
According to a 2018 study, burnout stems from unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload and a lack of clarity about what a person’s role should involve
However, sometimes the work environment is the problem. According to a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 US workers, burnout stems from unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload and a lack of clarity about what a person’s role should involve. Workers were also stressed out by a lack of support from their manager and unreasonable time pressure.
“Another issue can be that the values of the company are seriously at odds with the person’s own values, which creates a sense of strain and dissonance, because they’re doing something that they don’t believe in,” says Walker. In some cases, her clients can solve the problem by taking up something fulfilling outside work, but very occasionally they decide to make a more radical change, such as changing companies or even taking up a new profession.
Whatever the cause of your burnout, Murray’s top tip is to be kind to yourself.
In Murray's experience, a key driver of the burnout epidemic is today’s culture of wanting it all. Often it’s just not possible to have a healthy social life and deliver on a big project, and meet all your personal fitness goals all at the same time. She says it's crucial to prioritise and not expect too much of yourself; when others seem like the perfect boss parent, fitness idol and friend all at the same time, they're probably misleading us – or at the very least getting a lot of help.
If you feel that you might be close to joining the burnout club, take a step back, figure out what’s going wrong – and let yourself off the hook.