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What is burnout syndrome?

Burnout syndrome:

There’s a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout. 

Burnout syndrome is a total loss of motivation and energy with no sign of relief. And while Burnout Syndrome once was only used to refer to the extremes dealt with by health care professionals, police officers, firefighters, and those who deal with trauma and human services, today,workplace burnout impacts everyone 

In fact, the World Health Organization’s latest International Classification of Diseases even lists burnout as an official ‘occupational phenomenon.’ 

However, there’s still a stigma around burnout that causes many people to ignore it. So how do you know if you’ve slipped from stressed to truly burnt out? 

The 3 types of burnout (and how to tell which one you’re dealing with)

Let’s start by understanding where burnout comes from. 

The obvious culprit is our workdays. And in most cases, when people talk about burnout they’re referring to professional burnout. However, there are other factors to consider if you’re feeling the symptoms of burnout. 

In her paper, The Future of Burnout, Dr. Maslach defined three separate types of burnout:

  • Individual burnout

    is caused by excessive negative self-talk, neurosis, and perfectionism. In other words, when you place extremely high standards on yourself or believe nothing you do is good enough.  

  • Interpersonal Burnout

    is caused by difficult relationships with others at work or at home. For example, an aggressive or unwelcoming boss or coworker can compound the stress you already feel at work to the point of burnout.  

  • Organizational burnout

    is caused by poor organization, extreme demands, and unrealistic deadlines that make you feel like you’re missing the mark and that your job is in danger. 

The first step in com-batting burnout is understanding the factors that contribute to it: the people, processes, and personality traits that can push you over the edge. Without addressing each of these factors, you’ll always be at risk of burning out. 

However, it’s also important to remember that burnout is rarely entirely your fault. There’s a stigma around burnout syndrome that makes people feel like it’s solely caused by your workload or an inability to handle stress. But in many cases, the factors are out of your control. 

As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal ask:

“Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?”

Rude and inconsiderate teammates or managers, unfair processes or misplaced judgment (or praise!) can all add to your sense of burnout. Don’t feel like you need to shoulder all the blame and be responsible for all the solutions yourself. 

Signs you’re suffering from burnout (and how to diagnose its source)

Like any major health issue, the earlier you can recognize the signs of burnout syndrome, the better chance you have of recovering or even avoiding it altogether.
While we covered the top three signs of burnout above—exhaustion, detachment, and ineffectiveness—these aren’t always easy to self-diagnose.  If you’re uncertain whether you’re facing a period of stress or on the verge of burnout, here are the signs and symptoms to watch out for.

The major signs and symptoms of burnout

Stress is inevitable in the modern workplace. But the more you ignore the stressors in your life, the more likely it is that you’ll hit burnout. 

No one can run on empty forever. Instead of ignoring the stressors that are sucking the passion and motivation out of your workday pay close attention to the following feelings:

1. Chronic fatigue and physical and emotional exhaustion

The first thing you might notice when you’re burnt out is being tired all the time. In this way, burnout and depression share many of the same symptoms. In fact, if left unchecked, burnout can quickly develop into chronic depression and start to infiltrate all aspects of your life.

While we all get tired, the constant fatigue associated with burnout syndrome is a different beast altogether. If you’re unsure whether you’re feeling burnout-related fatigue, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you wake up tired even if you go to bed early?
  • Are you moving more slowly than usual and taking longer to get ready in the morning?
  • Do even small tasks feel like they take more energy than you can afford?
  • Are you dreading what lies ahead today and tomorrow?

This sort of mental exhaustion can manifest itself physically, with increased vulnerability to the cold and flu, nausea, and headaches. So listen to your body. It’s often more honest than your brain when it comes to how you’re feeling. 

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2. Cynicism and detachment

The honest truth is that you won’t love your work every single day.

But you might be suffering from burnout if the feeling of detachment and cynicism won’t leave, or if you’re constantly preoccupied with thoughts of how to escape work and projects (even when you’re outside of work or with friends and family).

Again, this sign of burnout can manifest itself in other ways such as increased pessimism, being less trustworthy of coworkers, friends, and family, as well as feeling isolated and disconnected from other people and your environment. 

If you start to feel this way, ask a few questions to see if it’s something more than just a period of unhappiness: 

  • Are you more quick to anger or have less patience with those you work with than usual? 
  • Are you calling in sick or looking for excuses to get out of work on a regular basis? 
  • Do you find yourself ditching parties or events you were once looking forward to? 
  • Are you feeling a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment?

3. A lack of accomplishment and feeling ineffective at work

Once your burnout reaches a certain level, it’s sure to affect your work and how you perceive your own value. You might start to feel apathy, ineffective, and continually ask yourself ‘What’s the point?’

When you catch yourself giving up before you even start a task or project, ask a few questions:

  • Do you feel like nothing you do at work matters? 
  • Is it harder to connect your daily tasks to a meaningful goalor a larger vision? 
  • Does it feel like there’s more work than you can realistically do every day? 
  • Are you overwhelmed with responsibilities to the point where you don’t want to do anything?

One of the biggest workplace motivators is seeing progress on meaningful work.

However, when you’re burnt out it often feels like it doesn’t matter what you do, nothing makes a difference. This can cause frustration and anger over your lack of productivity, but also a sense of hopelessness that’s hard to come back from.

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