A New Age Problem – Burnout

Graphic by Mrunal Pawar

Most of us strive to land a dream job with a high-paying salary. Once we do achieve that goal, we tend to get sucked into rigid schedules and forget to pay heed to the other aspects of our life. The modern era demands prolonged hours of work, stress and minimum or no social life to satisfy the constant yearning to be on top and that can manifest as exhaustion and burnout.

Burnout vs Stress

Burnout and stress are used interchangeably but they are different. Stress is a temporary feeling experienced when we are pushed out of our comfort zone. It is characterized by over engagement, loss of energy and it primarily affects physical health. But, burnout is identified as disengagement, loss of motivation, blunted emotions and it affects mental health.

Burnout can be defined as physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by chronic stress that has not been successfully managed or the inability to cope with such stress. Someone who experiences burnout can go through emotional and physical changes that can negatively affect their life.

Anyone can burnout

Emotional burnout is not restricted to a particular profession or field. Anybody can be overwhelmed while juggling between work, family, friends and health. But there are certain career paths that can quickly burn you out.   

Professionals in the medical field like doctors, nurses, emergency responders are usually the ones to experience occupational stress. Especially in the times of a pandemic like we are in, they are overworked with sleep disturbances and helplessness. Social workers can also feel emotionally drained because they work in stressful environments and may experience secondary traumatic stress.

Burnout creeps in stages

But burnout or mental exhaustion doesn’t happen in an instant. It’s the slow building up of stress combined with negative work environments that lead to feelings of hopelessness. It progresses in stages.

It begins when one takes up a new job or task. One goes in bursting with excitement, energy and the commitment to excel. This is the initial stage where one’s spirits are high and creativity flows free. One even readily accepts responsibilities with the intention to prove oneself in a new environment. At this point, the future seems bright. 

As the days progress, we are confronted with challenges and not-so-good days. Work becomes stressful and the unbridled optimism slowly starts to fade away. It takes a toll on the body in the form of fatigue, irritability, lack of social life, reduced sleep quality, anxiety and headaches.

Chronic stress is the next stage of burnout. All the motivation gets drained and stress is experienced more frequently. The symptoms of burnout intensify and leads to anger, apathy, substance dependency, cynical attitude, physical illness, chronic exhaustion and resentfulness.

The final stage is burnout itself. Continuing a normal life becomes almost impossible. The outlook towards life and work becomes pessimistic and a cloud of self-doubt looms over. The individual experiencing burnout may even slip into depression. 

Causes of Burnout

The workload is the primary contributor to feeling perpetually exhausted and unappreciated. When the workload matches your capacity, it’s all smooth sailing. But when it reaches a point above a person’s threshold, it becomes problematic. Also when the amount of work put in is undervalued and it does not reap any rewards then you are going to feel that there is no payoff for your investment in the company. A feeling of lack of control can also cause mental exhaustion. For example, when you feel that you have no control of the work and need to meet a tight deadline, it can lead to stressful days at work. Even a bully at work, a demanding manager or a long commute to work can leave one demoralized.

Proactive steps that make a change

While the consequences of burnout can be severe, we can prevent it by being proactive. Staring at your workplace, identify the areas that cause stress, delegate work and normalize saying no when you aren’t comfortable doing something. When you feel overloaded with assignments, take control of the situation and talk to your boss to reach a solution. 

Another aspect that can lead to exhaustion is mismatched values. If the work you do does not align with your values, it can cause internal friction and make you dread going to work. Ask yourself whether the organization’s values and ethics make you feel uneasy. 

Apart from these, outside of work, set time aside for exercise and social life. Interacting with family and friends can take the weight off your chest. Try maintaining a healthy work-life balance and most importantly ask for help when you need it. 

Personally, I believe everyone comes to the point of burnout at some phase in life. But we often brush it off as a bad day and when we do address it, the people around us might disregard it. We need to be mindful of the signs of burnout because the well-being of an individual is at risk if not addressed. 

Mental exhaustion and burnout are serious issues but they can be dealt with if they are nipped at the bud. If your daily life calls for long work hours, pressure and responsibilities, set aside time for yourself and weed out the elements that negatively impact your life. 

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