What the term ‘burnout’ actually means — and how to spot the warning signs


Those feeling tired despite getting sleep, constantly fighting off sickness or struggling to find joy in things they once did, might be on notice burnout is close, writes author and leadership coach Jess Stuart. 

Words: From Burnout to Brilliance, by Jess Stuart.

The term ‘burnout’ was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He originally defined burnout as ‘the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.’

We use ‘burnout’ to describe physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Burnout is more than the fatigue we experience at the end of a demanding week, though. It’s an exhaustion that doesn’t ease up after a long weekend recharging the batteries. It’s the kind of tired even sleep can’t fix.

According to a 2020 study by the Mental Health Foundation, a quarter of New Zealand adults are struggling with their mental health. The pandemic, and the associated stress, fear and hardships it has brought about, is likely to have exacerbated this. But even before the pandemic, Southern Cross showed a 23.5 per cent rise in stress across businesses in their 2019 study.

In her research on burnout, Christina Maslach, of the University of California, noticed a trend in those she interviewed: workers frequently reported feelings of profound emotional exhaustion, negativity and a crisis in feelings of professional incompetence.

From this study Maslach identified six main components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout:
• workload
• control
• reward
• community
• fairness
• values.

Research suggests that burnout is more common in certain roles, particularly lawyers and GPs, careers associated with long hours and the busy badge of honour. There’s also a higher risk of burnout in caring careers such as teaching and nursing. Slightly different to burnout, but with very similar symptoms, is compassion fatigue: the physical, emotional and psychological impact of helping others, often coupled with experiences of stress or trauma. Compassion fatigue can leave those in caring careers more susceptible to burnout: something many of our essential workers have experienced during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Gallup research in 2015 showed that 2.7 million workers in Germany reported feeling the effects of burnout. The Japanese have a word for burnout at its most extreme: karoshi, literally meaning death by overwork.

STRESS AND BURNOUT

The World Health Organization predicts that burnout will be a global pandemic in less than a decade, and the World Economic Forum estimates an annual burnout cost of £225 billion to the global economy. We know the organisational cost of burnout is increased turnover, absenteeism and, of course, the obvious impact on performance.

Stress in the workplace is something we’ve talked about for a long time now, but it’s only recently that burnout has become a popular topic of conversation. What’s the difference between the two?

I like the distinction Psychology Today draws between stress and burnout. It defines burnout as an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be ameliorated, and goes on to say if stress is short-lived or tied to a specific goal, it is most likely not harmful. If the stress feels never-ending and comes with feelings of emptiness, apathy and hopelessness, it may be indicative of burnout.

Burnout is more than just being stressed. In fact, a small amount of stress can be motivating for us: it can spur us into action. This type of stress is known as eustress, from the Greek, literally meaning ‘good stress’. It is defined as a positive cognitive response to stress that leads to a feeling of fulfilment.

On a continuum of stress we might find boredom on one end and burnout at the other extreme. Eustress is the middle ground we’re aiming for.

There’s an accomplished tired, but then there’s the kind of tired where our battery just won’t charge and we’re constantly running on empty – that’s burnout. It’s a prolonged stress not fixed by a holiday; a constant exhaustion nothing will shift. It was during my own burnout I came across the saying ‘sleep won’t help when your soul is tired’.

Jess Stuart

It’s a myth that burnout is just a normal response to long hours or a challenging job. The evidence shows that burnout takes an acute physical toll that cascades well beyond our work.

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It’s not just exhaustion or stress though – burnout is bigger than that, and so are the consequences. It’s the kind of tired that’s physically and mentally detrimental to our health.
Author of Thrive and founder of Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, has described her own burnout: she was so exhausted she collapsed, hitting her head on her desk, breaking her cheek bone and needing four stitches on her right eye. It’s that kind of tired.

We tend to correlate burnout to the quantity of our work; to overwork. We’re ‘doing’ too much, we think. However, it can just as easily be the quality of what we’re doing that causes stress that
leads to burnout. In fact, this is what tires our soul the most. A lack of control, a bullying boss or a toxic work environment. Feeling undermined, or just lacking meaning and purpose in our work.

According to Psychology Today; burnout is not simply a result of working long hours or juggling too many tasks, though both these play a role. The cynicism, depression and lethargy that are
characteristic of burnout most often occur when a person is not in control of how they carry out their job, or is asked to complete tasks that conflict with their sense of self.

KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS

So how do we avoid burnout? What triggers should we look out for? Well, if you’re tired all the time, despite getting plenty of sleep; if you’re constantly fighting off coughs and colds – always being on the verge of sickness; if you’re struggling to motivate yourself, and not finding joy in the things you used to love or don’t have the motivation to do these things … you’re on notice burnout is close.

In this state, we become less tolerant of those around us. We reach for the wrong food or increase our alcohol intake as a coping mechanism. When we’re exhausted, we tend to choose TV over exercise, or takeaways over cooking, or we skip meals completely because of a loss of appetite – these are all potential burnout signs.

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And, of course, the most obvious sign is when we truly hit burnout, and end up in bed, completely devoid of energy and interest in life. This was certainly my experience – but we’re all different. How do we take what we know and apply it to our own experience?

Most of us know what it’s like to be at our best; we’ve been there before. Likewise, we know what it’s like when we’re about to hit a wall and get sick: when we’ve overdone it, left it too late or burned the candle at both ends.

I like to think of this in terms of a traffic light. We all have green and red zones, and they look different for us all. The red light stops us completely; it’s our ground zero. The green light is when we’re all go and at our best. The amber light, in between, is important: it’s our warning system. When we slip from green, before we hit red, the amber light gives us an opportunity to act and pre-empt hitting the wall and slipping into that red zone: burnout.

For me, that amber light is a twitch in the corner of my eye, a sore throat and a constant tiredness. It’s noticing I’m less tolerant and a bit snappy with loved ones. This is my amber light; my warning to back off, take a rest and pre-empt the approaching red zone.

Another way to think about this is in terms of the petrol warning light in the car. When you know your tank is nearing empty, stop and refuel, to avoid being left on the side of the road.

A brush with burnout in her corporate career led Jess Stuart across the world to train with Buddhist monks and nuns. A decade later, after coming out, writing six books and running her own successful business she shares what she knows about mind-set, resilience and self-mastery to empower leaders to unlock their potential. Jess’ books include Burnout to Brilliance, The Superwoman Survival Guide, I Love Mondays, and a new book Leader Zen, published by Inspire Publishing, May 1 2023. 

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