Guarding Against Burnout

From time-to-time all of us experience distress. Distress is defined as a subjective emotional state that stems from ongoing stress, life challenges, conflicts, or demands. Distress is a natural experience that cannot be avoided. However, when it is protracted our functioning becomes compromised and distress can turn into impairment, and if left untreated, it begins to affect our personal and professional competence. Distress and impairment are neither fully present or absent, but rather exist on a continuum.


In 1975 Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “Burnout” to describe the advanced stage of distress. Burnout involves feelings of emotional exhaustion, diminished satisfaction or accomplishment, and feelings of depersonalization. Emotional exhaustion occurs when we feel depleted of our emotional resources. Diminished accomplishment and satisfaction are present when we feel less competent, less productive and ineffective in shaping our environment. These are expressions of the self-evaluative dimension of burnout. Finally, we can recognize depersonalization when we realize that we have become increasingly negative, cynical or detached from others.


Research suggests that emotional exhaustion is the most stable and consistent dimension of burnout. Typical warning signs include:


  • Becoming frustrated more easily than usual
  • Feeling impatient
  • Feeling angry with less provocation in dealings with colleagues, employees or family
  • Increased boredom
  • Experiencing a lack of focus
  • Increased fatigue
  • Decreased motivation
  • Decreased work fulfillment or enjoyment


Researchers have found that burnout is caused by either losing or fearing the we are going to lose material, social or energetic resources that are important to us. Burnout is seldom the result of a single event, but rather follows multiple losses. In a work setting burnout typically takes the form of physical fatigue (loss of physical energy), emotional exhaustion (loss of emotional energy), and cognitive weariness (loss of mental energy). These three forms of energy are highly interrelated so that the depletion in one tends to be associated with a diminishment of the others. As an example, take the case of a work place that has gone through reductions in staffing and budgets. Fewer available resources often mean that fewer people are available to do work that is needed. In many instances, this translates into greater demands being placed on existing employees. Thus begins the cycle of depleted physical energy and fatigue that can serve as the beginning stage of burnout. Many of us are apt to respond to this scenario by working harder and longer. When this proves ineffective, as it often does, anxiety, demoralization, and resignation follow. At the same time, near constant busyness often means being less available to offer or seek emotional support, or simply having fun with colleagues in the course of our workday. And so, we start to experience a slow and steady reduction of emotional support and energy that can begin to feed detachment, cynicism, and withdrawal.


Research has shown that adverse organizational or situational factors are more significant in the onset of burnout than personality factors. Although healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy (that is, having a sense of agency and perceived control) can buffer us in the face of mounting stress, work environments in which we experiences success, feel effective, and feel affirmed, are essential to healthy adjustment. Perhaps the most potent means of reducing, or even eliminating, burnout is to ensure the availability of support. However, availability of support alone is not enough. Many of us have multiple sources of support that we can access. But, it’s the willingness to make use of that support that is an essential ingredient to guarding against burnout and emotional depletion. This is where personality is most influential. For some of us, accessing support is viewed as a defeat or failure. Others of us struggle with feelings of low self-worth and feel unworthy of support, engaging in an inner dialogue in which we convince ourselves that others’ problems are more significant or that our concerns will simply burden others needlessly.


At times, we may become aware that someone requires a slight nudge to seek appropriate support, particularly if they appear to be exhibiting signs consistent with the early stages of burnout and most of their energy is being channelled into working longer and harder. Being engaged with our community and family, setting time aside for professional development, connecting with colleagues, exercising, and nourishing our spirituality are all ways to guard against burnout. These kinds of initiatives can help us build and access sources of support. In more advanced stages of burnout we may need to seek professional help in order to overcome the hurdle of burnout.

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