Whether it comes from a friend, a colleague, or ourselves, we have all heard the words "burned out" in every day conversations. By the figurative workplace water cooler, to the intimate conversations of friends, to the cheerful checkout person asking how your day is going, almost everyone at some point in their life has reported: "You know... I'm good, but BUSY. TIRED. Running on EMPTY. And kind of BURNED OUT". So what is this that we are all referring to exactly?
The term "burnout" is not a term used for mental illness, but rather a word used to describe the negative consequences that we feel when we engage in self-sacrificing activities - usually as they relate to work - more often than we can handle. This means that the feeling of burnout can materialize under very different circumstances from one person to the next. While Billy may be able to work 60 hours a week at a not-for-profit and feel moderate levels of burnout, Jane may feel more significant levels of burnout after working 35 hours a week at a law firm in addition to taking care of her ailing father. And Fred may feel high levels of burnout after a year of taking care of his two toddlers. While each of these scenarios are markedly different, they will all share (to varying degrees) the tell-tale signs of burnout: exhaustion, stress, and a decrease in their effectiveness at work. Let's quickly look at each of these a little closer:
Exhaustion refers to the feeling of being emotionally drained and an increased difficulty in coping with day-to-day, mild stressors. A person may feel tired and down, and not have as much energy as usual. Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping more OR less) are common.
Stress may present itself in the form of general frustration and anxiety, or more specific cynicism about working conditions or colleagues. Stress may also result in a person distancing themselves emotionally from work, or feeling generally more numb when it comes to their day to day activity.
A decrease in effectiveness at work refers to the difficulty that appears when it comes time to complete tasks either at the office or at home. A person may feel general negativity about the tasks they need to complete, find it difficult to concentrate, struggle with creativity, or feel a lack of direction throughout their day, resulting in less production.
Although these symptoms are similar to those of depression, the difference between burnout and depression is seen in the specificity of the domain of these feelings. This means that in burnout, the negative feelings that a person experiences are contained (for the most part) within the realm of work, whether it be work in an office, in a school, in a garage, or in a home. In depression however, the negative feelings that a person experiences are not contained to a specific domain, which is to say that the negative feelings percolate outwards into many aspects of life: family, friends, hobbies, etc. Within depression, feelings of low self-esteem, hopeless, and sometimes thoughts of suicide may be seen.
This is not to say that burnout is not a serious condition. The consequences of burnout may have an effect on cardiovascular problems, musculoskeletal pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, insomnia, depressive symptoms, use of psychotropic and antidepressant medications, job dissatisfaction and absenteeism.
So if you think that you may be experiencing burnout, talking to your manager or supervisor about potential ways to relieve it may help. Speaking with a mental health professional can also be useful in understanding your particular circumstance. And in the interim, if you do need a couple of extra ideas, take a quick look at Burnout - Part 2 (aka. And How to Avoid the Dumpster Fire?) for some tips on how to gain control over this difficult but common experience.