Has work got you feeling depleted? Are you struggling to focus or finish tasks on time? Has your once-endless enthusiasm morphed into cynicism or just plain dread? You could be experiencing burnout — which has just been officially recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’.
This is big, because up until now, it’s been a difficult concept to pin down due to sharing many of its symptoms with anxiety and depression, and the tendency to use it as a term to express feeling stressed about life in general. And because of this lack of clarity, there has also been a lack of consensus when it comes to measuring burnout and — more importantly — diagnosing it.
The WHO classification gives it a clearer definition of being workplace-related and provides these tell-tale signs to look out for: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to your job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Recognise any of these? Don’t panic. You’re bound to experience one or all of these at some stage of your career; it’s when all three appear at the same time and hang around for a while that you’re at risk of burnout.
The good news is, if recognised and successfully managed, it can be relatively simple to rectify. “Folks who are depressed will still be depressed sitting on a tropical beach, but those with burnout often feel better once they’ve taken time off. In other words, in depression, the little black raincloud follows you everywhere, but in burnout, it stays squarely over your work station,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Hendriksen.
According to the WHO definition, if not successfully managed, chronic workplace stress can lead to burnout. And while it can affect anyone at any time, there are certain risk factors that may make you more susceptible to burnout. Look out for these lifestyle factors to help keep you on top of your mental health at work…
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Factor 1: Your Job
People in caring professions — such as police, doctors, nurses and teachers — report higher levels of burnout. A Beyond Blue national mental-health survey of doctors and medical students found almost a third (32 per cent) of doctors had high levels of emotional exhaustion and just over a third (35 per cent) said they had become cynical in their job.
University of Western Australia research found that 41 per cent of teachers reported workplace stress or burnout due to an excessive workload and long working hours. And another recent Aussie survey revealed 37 per cent of lawyers displayed moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
“The workplace has changed — there’s no longer the 5pm cut-off, you take work home with you, and there’s an expectation you’ll do that,” says Dr Mike Musker of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.
He adds it can be difficult to switch off from work when smartphones make you available 24/7.
Factor 2: Your Age
There’s strong evidence that the younger you are, the more vulnerable you are to burnout. The Beyond Blue survey found doctors under the age of 30 were most likely to report symptoms of burnout, with about 48 per cent suffering from high emotional exhaustion, compared to only 11 per cent in the over-60 age group.
Dr Musker believes younger people are more prone to burnout because of a lack of job security that drives them to work longer, harder and better to try and snare some job stability.
“Jobs are now mostly two- or three-year contracts, whereas previously you could have a job for life. Young people start work with no job security, a large university debt and no housing security because property prices are too high,” he says.
Younger workers are also more likely to spend more time on social media, which can put added pressure on their mental wellbeing.
Factor 3: Your Personality
Black Dog Institute research is shedding new light on what personality traits may put you at greater risk of burnout.According to researchers Professor Gordon Parker and Gabriela Tavella, perfectionists, for example, are particularly vulnerable to burnout because “they tend to set excessively high performance standards they inevitably fail to meet”, they write. Prof Parker adds perfectionists are also less likely to step back or take a holiday when feeling the strain as they’re likely to feel guilty for doing so — as if they’re letting people down.
Conversely, people with a trait known as low core self-evaluation — in other words, people with a low opinion of their own abilities — may also experience burnout more easily “as they likely view difficult work assignments as threatening or overwhelming, rather than achievable challenges”, write the researchers.
How to Protect Yourself
If caught early, burnout should be relatively easy to overcome, however, unrecognised and unmanaged, it has the potential to spiral. According to Dr Musker, stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, sending adrenaline coursing through your body. In the long-term, this constant flood of adrenaline can lead to depression, anxiety, heart disease or weight gain.
Germany’s Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care warns that when negative thoughts and feelings aren’t only about work, but about all areas of life, that’s when burnout can spiral into depression. This can have far more devastating consequences, such as feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem, which in turn can lead to alcohol and drug abuse and even thoughts of suicide.
So it’s vital to stop burnout in its tracks — or avoid it happening again if you’ve already been through it. The first step is to acknowledge your condition, says Dr Musker. Start by asking:
1. Has anyone close to you asked you to cut down on work?
2. Think back on the past couple of months — and be honest with yourself — have you become angry or resentful about your work, colleagues, clients or patients?
3. Do you feel guilty for not spending enough time with your loved ones, or perhaps not having enough time to do things for yourself?
4. Have you become more emotional than usual? Do you cry or lose your temper easily, or do you feel tense for no apparent reason?
If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, your next step is to physically get away from your job. Prof Parker says taking a break from work can help, as can regular exercise, meditation, mindfulness and yoga, as these activities help to “turn off your brain”.
Dr Musker says quality sleep is also important because being well-rested will help you better handle stress. He says creating a bedtime routine can go a long way in helping you wind down and fall asleep more easily. Going to bed and waking up at a set time each day and banning devices from your bedroom are just a few suggestions.
He also believes focusing on creating a work-life balance is key to resolving burnout. “Write yourself a personal contract that you won’t work after a certain time in the evening — and that means not looking at your emails or work mobile after that time,” he says.
And at weekends, put aside at least one day when you don’t think about work. “You need to quarantine your personal life from your work life to stop it taking over.”
If you need help now, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14