Burnout thrown into the spotlight
Jacinda Ardern is in the news today. A truly inspirational global leader yet again demonstrating her authenticity, humility, grace, and general “human-ness”, as she resigns from her position as New Zealand Prime Minister. She talks about not having enough in the tank to see through another 2 years, knowing the demands of the role. And this is burnout prevention in action.
She understands the demands and the personal toll it can take. She puts the service of others first. And concludes that her health, her family, and her ability to serve her country exceptionally must come first. I say, what a role model!
The media is in a burnout fuelled frenzy as a result, so let’s talk about the topic in a way that’s real, raw and honest.
I’ve experienced the full-force of burnout. I’ve studied it. I’ve written a book about it. And I’m passionate about burnout prevention. Here’s how I tell it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. It is a common problem among people who work in high-pressure environments, have many significant and ongoing stressors in their lives, and at particular times in the life-cycle when the demand for juggling multiple strains is at a maximum. You can see why Jacinda is at risk, along with other high profile leaders.
Whilst there are certain professions and demographics that appear to have higher rates of burnout; the important thing to note is that it can happen to anyone. You don’t have to be a prime minister or CEO. The underlying factor is prolonged and unmanageable stress, and therefore anyone exposed to that is at risk.
The World Health Organisation and Burnout
According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
“Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised 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; and reduced professional efficacy.”
The definition is a good starting point, but I would argue it’s too narrow in nature. The root cause of burnout is chronic stress, and we all know that stress also happens outside of the workplace. Indeed, it’s often the collision of work and personal pressures that can lead to the tipping point into burnout.
The definition and inclusion of the term in WHO’s International Classification of Diseases in 2019 was a helpful move. But it needs to go much further if people are to get the help they need and deserve around this topic.
The Symptoms Of Burnout
People often ask me how they would know if they’re heading for burnout. So let’s try and tackle this here.
There are some key things to recognise before we get into the detail:
- Burnout isn’t yet formally recognised as a medical condition in the UK, and as such, there are no standard diagnostic criteria.
- Burnout is a very personal experience and can manifest differently, with one individual having slightly different symptoms to another.
- Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. You are not absolutely fine one minute and have burnout the next. It builds over a long period of time.
With those factors in mind here are some key symptoms associated with burnout.
- Persistent tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion – your normal methods for re-energising yourself are no longer effective.
- Overwhelm becomes the norm – even if you’re wearing a brave face, beneath the surface you’re struggling to cope with one more thing, issue or challenge.
- Cognitive function feels impaired – concentration, focus and problem solving are an increasing struggle and you’ll be implementing strategies to mitigate the impact.
- Emotions are at the surface – whether it’s agitation, frustration, anger, upset, or another feeling, you are finding yourself easily triggered and your emotions hard to control.
- Motivation is replaced with apathy – in partnership with declining energy, motivation can also wane, potentially leaving you feeling lost and isolated.
There are more, but these are the ones that come up the most frequently in the literature and in my clinical and coaching practice.
How Can You Self-Identify Burnout?
For reasons I described earlier it’s not technically possible to get a true burnout diagnosis from your GP, but more and more the topic is being discussed in the treatment room, which is encouraging.
Nevertheless I would always recommend seeing your health practitioner if you are experiencing any of these types of symptoms; there is overlap in burnout symptoms with other conditions and so it’s prudent to rule things in or out. And in the process you’ll also discover what support is available to you.
More often than not people have turned to an online search, magazines, or books to help them try and identify what’s going on and how they can self-help. So here are some questions you can ask yourself.
10 Helpful Questions To Ask Yourself
I commonly ask people the following questions to see if they are in the potential territory of burnout. Whilst these are not diagnostic, they can provide an indication of the need to seek support.
- Are you constantly feeling exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and can’t break the cycle?
- Do you find it hard to re-energise yourself through techniques that have worked for you in the past?
- Have you been experiencing stress for an extended period of time that you feel has had an impact on your wellbeing?
- Are you feeling increasingly overwhelmed and unable to cope with anything else being thrown your way to manage?
- Do you find it hard to motivate yourself to do the types of things you used to enjoy?
- Have you found yourself becoming more negative or cynical about your work or personal life, in a way that’s not normal for you?
- Are you having new challenges with concentrating, focusing on tasks, problem solving or remembering things?
- Have you noticed that you are increasingly emotional and unable to control your feelings bubbling over?
- Are you finding yourself withdrawing from social activities or isolating yourself due to low energy or motivation?
- Are you experiencing feelings of apathy or detachment from your work or personal life?
If you answered yes to several of these questions, it may be a sign that you are experiencing burnout. It is important to seek help from a medical / health professional if you suspect that you are burning out.
If you suspect that you or someone in your team is experiencing, or at risk of, burnout the first step is always seeking/encouraging help from a health professional.
Many people do want to explore how they can both educate and help themselves and that’s why I’ve created a range of resources to help individuals and teams.
Have It All Without Burning Out is my bestselling book in which I share my own personal journey with burnout, explore the topics of stress and burnout, before offering my recommendations for preventing burnout through resilience building strategies.
My follow-up book Confidence Confessions provides a deeper insight into the connection between low confidence and the propensity to burnout. Both are available in all formats – paperback, kindle and audio.
You can also find plenty of my free blogs and other resources here.
Wishing you well on your burnout-prevention and resilience-building journey.
An executive coach, mentor, and advisor, with 2 decades of experience and success at director level in the banking sector, and a few more years running a thriving coaching and consultancy practice helping leaders in a variety of organisational settings. Also a qualified nutritional therapist and the author of 2 books.
My focus is helping people be their best at work in order to achieve great results in a fulfilling role, and live life with purpose and meaning.