Since I have recently been asked a lot about burnout and how to recognize and deal with it I would like to share some thoughts on this phenomenon from a psychotherapeutic point of view. My goal is to encourage you to think more about burnout and the possible (negative) affects it has on your life.
What is burnout?
One of the most well-known definitions of burnout is offered by Jackson Maslach and Leiter (1996) who describe burnout in three-dimensional terms “as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity“.
From this definition we can see that burnout is a phenomenon clearly connected with the work(place). James Patterson, a writer, wrote the following very interesting and thought provoking passage which does not only touch upon work but also on other aspects of our life, in relation to burnout:
‘’Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered. And once you truly understand the lesson of the five balls, you will have the beginnings of balance in your life.’’
Work as a part of our life
We know that work (in various forms) is an important and even existential part of our life. That means that the work ball comes back to us every day, again and again. And with each bounce there is a possibility that burnout will start to develop and what is more, affect our life. We have to be aware of the fact that burnout is not an isolated phenomenon but has an affect on many aspects of our life, from our internal psychological experience to the environment around us. This means that the symptoms can occur on an individual (physical, cognitive, motivational, behavioural), interpersonal (relationships) and organisational level (working place).
Burnout is a result of a long and slow process that may last for years and therefore it is difficult to recognise it when it happens and deal with it properly. On the one hand it is connected with the workplace and the specifics that are typical for it (in terms of the job and occupational characteristics that have to be satisfied by an employee) but on the other hand it has also to do with the individual characteristics of the employee. Namely, some people are more prone to burnout than others since people possess characteristics which vary from individual to individual (gender, age, past experiences, education, mental stability, competitiveness, etc.).
How to prevent it?
To prevent burnout we can therefore concentrate on the workplace of the individual (organizational level) or on the individual themselves. Even though the majority of scientific research has shown that situational, social and organizational factors play a much bigger role than individual ones when it comes to the development of burnout that does not mean that we should focus entirely on changing only that organisational level when it comes to burnout prevention. The reasons are two: First, due to the individual psychosocial differences, we cannot really change and adapt the system in order to fit everyone. And second, evidence shows that workers who experience burnout are actually less likely to participate in changes on the organizational level than workers who don’t suffer from burnout.
For successful prevention and mitigation of burnout it is therefore very important for an employee, who feels that he might be experiencing burnout or is on the verge of falling into that hole, to get individual professional psychotherapeutic help. In that way he or she receives help which perfectly fits and takes into consideration all the individual factors which help to decrease emotional exhaustion, deals with feelings of depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment and help prevent burnout from affecting their life.