Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion which is caused by excessive, prolonged stress. It occurs when there are constant demands that make you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet all that is required of daily life.  

The difference between prolonged fatigue and burnout is that fatigue is a general condition, most frequently related to medical reasons, whereas burnout is due to psychological reasons, typically work related. There are definite similarities, but for the purposes of this chat we’ll stick to what causes burnout and the effects that it has on an individual.

When exposed to chronic stress, our bodies function in “fight or flight” mode, which narrows our focus so that we can focus on the “threat” at hand. 

Our bodies and brains can handle this for short periods of time, but when it becomes the norm or goes on for extended periods of time, we struggle to pay attention to other things and start dropping balls. We can become forgetful and our professional ability becomes reduced. This leads to more stress and perpetuates the cycle.

Burnout is often accompanied by a variety of mental and physical health symptoms such as negativity, pessimism, cynicism, reduced creativity, stomach aches and headaches. Some people may begin alienating themselves from other or become anti-social. Others may look to alcohol, drugs or other things to escape temporarily.

A high-stress job doesn’t always lead to burnout. As long as stress is managed well, and there is enough time for fun and rest each day, the average person should be able to cope with their daily demands.

The below factors put individuals at a higher risk for burnout:

  1. Unreasonable time pressure. Employees who say they have enough time to do their work are 70 percent less likely to experience high burnout. Individuals who are not able to gain more time, such as paramedics and firefighters, are at a higher risk of burnout.
  2. Lack of communication and support from a manager. Manager support offers a psychological buffer against stress. Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis.
  3. Lack of role clarity. Only 60 percent of workers know what is expected of them. When expectations are like moving targets, employees may become exhausted simply by trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.
  4. Unmanageable workload. When a workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic employees will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout.
  5. Unfair treatment. Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are more likely to experience a high level of burnout.

There is hope for the person who is suffering from burnout, but they may need to make some changes in their work environment. Communication is key. If they are able to voice their concerns, and get the support they need, that will go a long way to helping. If changes within the current environment are not possible, then perhaps other options need to be considered.

Self-care strategies, like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and engaging in healthy sleep habits may help to reduce some of the effects of a high-stress job. 

Holidays and time off may also offer some temporary relief too, but if you’ve reached burnout it will take a bit more than a bit of time off to recover fully.

Listen to my interview with Brad Kirsten from Radio Cape Pulpit on 14 December 2023 to learn more. Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am.