Burnout: What is it, and what can you do about it

We have all lived through many months of a global pandemic.  Many of us have had to work from home, isolated much of each day. Learning new skills to survive has become the norm.  After months of chronic stress, I have to ask: are you ok? Do you feel burned out?  How can you tell if you are getting burned out?  More importantly, what can you do about it?  This article discusses the science behind work burnout, how to diagnose it in yourself, and what to do to help you maintain your positive mental health.

What is burnout?

The term burnout was first used by Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970’s to describe the condition he was studying in helping professions, such as police officers, medical professionals and educators. Many of them said they felt like a burned out building, and didn’t have anything left to give.  

Freudenberger and North went on to describe the stages of burnout like this:

  1. The Compulsion to Prove Oneself: The high flyers in your organization continue to take on more and more responsibility to have a sense of self-worth.
  2. Working Harder: These are the people who can’t shut work off. They are working at night, on weekends, and seem to never stop talking about work..
  3. Neglecting Needs: Sleeping and eating patterns are erratic and disrupted. There is a noticeable lack of social interaction.
  4. Displacement of Conflicts: Even though work may be the problem, we may feel threatened, panicky, and jittery, even outside of work .
  5. Revision of Values: Work is the only thing that matters. Family, hobbies, all are summarily dismissed as not as important as the job.
  6. Denial of Emerging Problems: Short tempered and cynical are hallmarks of this symptom of burnout. Seeing everyone else as incompetent or lazy, being aggressive toward others.  Other people and situations are seen as the cause of the problem, no work.
  7. Withdrawal: Very little social life, perhaps finding solace in drugs and alcohol, chronic absenteeism.
  8. Odd Behavioral Changes: Acting out of character, being mean and dismissive when usually kind.
  9. Depersonalization: The self doesn’t matter, friends and colleagues don’t matter, not taking care of themselves.
  10. Inner Emptiness: Nothing seems to fill the empty void inside.  Sometimes attempts are made to fill that void by overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs, being an adrenaline junkie.
  11. Depression: Feeling hopeless, nothing in the future to look forward to, reluctance to try new things.
  12. Burnout Syndrome: Can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.

How do you know?

How do you know if you are burned out, or getting there?  The first step would be to carefully read the descriptions of the stages listed above.  Do you see yourself in any of those?  Perhaps ask a trusted friend if you have trouble finding objectivity with your own behavior.

Next, answer as honestly as you can these quick survey questions.  If you answered no, or your numbers to the other questions are high, perhaps you are feeling the symptoms of burnout.

In the past 30 days of work: 

  • I got satisfaction from being able to help people
  • I felt connected to others 
  • I felt invigorated after working with those I help
  • In the past 30 days, how many times have you skipped a meal?
  • In the past 30 days, how many days have you slept less than 7-8 hours a night?
  • In the past 30 days, how many times have you had to change your personal plans with friends or family due to your work schedule?

What can you do?

I have a theory. It is called “How to get out of a hole and start building a mountain”. The first step of getting out of a hole is to stop digging! Not to be cliché, but you have to admit to yourself that burnout may be an issue with you. This is challenging for several reasons.  As humans, we tend to not be good at estimating our abilities with any accuracy.  Also, social mores deem that we should be able to handle anything, and just deal with the stress.  If you can’t handle the stress, you will see yourself as weak, and so will your colleague, right? Wrong. This is serious stuff, and not recognizing and taking action to mitigate the symptoms can have serious consequences.

The first step of getting out of a hole is to stop digging, the next step is to start building a mountain.   Here are a few actionable steps to start and end your day, and some things to do every day that will help you out of that hole and onto the mountain top! 

Begin your day

  • Don’t start your day with your phone.  Don’t check your to do list and start worrying about work before you get to work. 
  • Start your day with some deep breaths, maybe the box breathing taught to Navy SEALS.  Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four. 
  • While breathing, take a minute and think of all the things for which you are grateful.  The research on gratitude exercises is compelling, and well worth a minute of your time in the morning to start your day right.

End your day

  • Leave work when the time is up, not when the job is done. Set yourself a time, say 5:30 p.m. That is when you leave work.  You don’t leave when the task is done, your desk is clean, all correspondence has been handled. No, because the job is never done.  It is a much healthier habit to leave when the time is up, go home with a clear head and don’t think about work until the next day.. 
  • Have a set time to shut off the news at the end of the day. Setting limits to our media consumption is a healthy habit and can help you get restful sleep.

Every day

  • Take time to pause once in a while. Do a gut check to make sure you have realistic expectations of your workload. Remind yourself you can’t take on the suffering of the world, and acknowledge how difficult your work can be sometimes.  
  • Contact a friend or neighbor. Reach out and ask if there are any ways you can help them right now. Helping others helps put our own worries into perspective, and gives us the added benefit of feeling good for helping others.
  • There is an ancient Hawaiian Philosophy of Huna.  One of the tenets of that philosophy is “Where the attention goes, the energy flows”  Check in with yourself. Are you focusing on all the things that are wrong, flawed or possibly could go wrong?  Instead, train your brain to focus on the hope, the possibility, the motivation, the positivity that is in your life.
  • Get support where you can.  Are there people you could turn to for some empathy and a listening ear, such as friends, a spouse or therapist? According to researchers such as McPherson, the number of people who say they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters has nearly tripled in the past two and a half decades. The more I feel burned out, the more I just wanted to hole up in my office and avoid people. This is exactly the opposite of what I should be doing. I don’t want to let people know how awful I was really feeling because I thought it meant I was weak. It takes time and effort to maintain social connections, but supportive people are the best inoculation against burnout.

Burnout can be a debilitating condition, and not one to take lightly.  There are other factors in our modern world, things like Zoom Fatigue, that are attacking our mental health.  Be aware, be proactive, be healthy.


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