What Is Burnout? What Can We Do About It?

Have you heard the word “burnout” a lot lately? Although coined in the 1970’s, the term really started to get used a lot in the past couple of years. This is due in large part to the number of healthcare workers who have experienced burnout as a result of the pandemic. However, burnout isn’t just something that happens to people in the helping professions. And, in fact, the word describes a mental and physical state of being that might not have anything to do with your job. So, we thought it might feel useful to explore what burnout really is and what we might be able to do about it.

What Is Burnout?

Experts don’t always agree on exactly what burnout is. However, a common description from WebMD paints a pretty fair picture. It’s key points include:

  • “Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped.”
  • “It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress.”
  • “Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.”

Importantly, the definition adds: “The condition isn’t medically diagnosed. But burnout can affect your physical and mental health if you don’t acknowledge or treat it.”

burnout affects everyone

Burnout, Stress, and Depression

Burnout is not the same as stress or depression, although these things might all be linked together. INTEGRIS Health explains that there are five stages of burnout including the onset of stress and then chronic stress. So, stress has the potential to lead to burnout.

The Cleveland Clinic and an NIH article together explain that many of the symptoms of depression and burnout do overlap. Symptoms of both include fatigue, sleeping and eating changes, and physical symptoms such as headaches.

In fact, one might get misdiagnosed with one condition when it’s really the other. (Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis but people may self-diagnose or get suggestions from professionals that this is what they are experiencing.) Typically speaking, the major difference is that burnout has a specific cause (such as work) and when you remove that stressor, you heal. In contrast, depression is a more generalized condition.

However, we’re increasingly coming to understand that the state of the world and the expectations of American society in particular are contributing to a kind of overall burnout that goes beyond needing a break from the job.

Burnout Isn’t Just an Individual Issue

When American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger initially coined the term burnout in the 1970’s, he was referring to the symptoms as they applied to doctors, nurses, and others in the “helping professions.” Later we came to realize that everyone from CEO’s of high tech firms to homemakers with small families might, can and do experience burnout.

In America, we tend to think of illness and conditions like burnout as individual’s issues, even when we recognize that certain industries or groups are prone to them. However, with as widespread as we now recognize burnout to be, we might begin to look at this as a large-scale issue caused and exacerbated by the stressors of every day life.

Remember that “burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped.” So some of the potential causes of burnout include:

  • Persistent stressful global, national, and local news
  • Social media overwhelm and other
  • Unmanageable work-life “balance”
  • Financial instability, insecurity, and worry
  • The impact of chronic illness on daily life
  • Lack of boundaries, supportive care, and self-care

thriving despite burnout

Thriving In the Face of Burnout

As we can see, burnout is a chronic widespread problem in the 21st century due in large part to our ways of life, particularly in the American culture. Ideally, we will address this through systemic change. However, in the meantime, we can find ways of helping ourselves to thrive in the face of burnout in our own lives. we must recognize that this isn’t easy in face of internal and external pressures. However, some of the ways we can cope with burnout include:

  • Setting boundaries to protect our time, energy, and wellness
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Reducing content consumption including news and social media
  • Doing our best to get the right sleep, diet, and exercise for our individual needs
  • Turning to our support system for help
  • Talking openly about burnout and honoring your experience
  • Seeking therapy to assist with thriving in the ways uniquely right for us as individuals

Are you ready to find a therapist? Contact us today.