At a glance
Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, says organisational psychologist Sarah Cotton, director of Transitioning Well.
Its debilitating symptoms can include fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and inability to concentrate.
“The language I hear out at the coalface is ‘I feel really spent. I feel really numb. I’m running on empty. I’m struggling to find the motivation to get the work done,’” Cotton says.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory, first published in 1981, measures three dimensions of burnout. The first is emotional exhaustion; the second is depersonalisation or cynicism, where people feel resentful and disconnected from the work that they’re doing; and the third is professional efficacy, where an individual who is burnt out “feels that they’re expending energy without seeing results”, she says. “‘I’m not doing anything well’, is a phrase I often hear.”
Feeling stressed at work is not the same as burnout.
“A certain amount of pressure is good for us – it’s positive stress. It makes us perform better, it motivates us, gives us more focus,” says psychologist Yasmin Schaefer, national program director at Mindful Employer.
“However, when that stress gets too much or is prolonged, that’s where we start heading towards burnout.”
Why burnout is a problem in modern workplaces
Social changes such as the rise of dual income families and the ageing population contribute to what Cotton describes as the growing problem of “work-life conflict – a big factor that leads to burnout”, she says. “A lot of people are sandwich carers, so they’re caring for their children, but…they’re also caring for their ageing parents.”
At the same time, many of us are struggling to manage unsustainable workloads, compounded by technology and an “always on” work culture. Modern workplaces move at a relentless pace with too little downtime for employees, says Cotton.
“People are working really hard, but they’re just not taking what we call internal recovery at work by taking lunch breaks or five minutes to walk around, nor are they switching off when they get home.”
Other factors that contribute to burnout include a lack of control at work, a lack of support from both leaders and organisations, a lack of recognition and reward, and values misalignment when conflict arises from a clash between personal and organisational values.
No one is immune to burnout, but some may be more susceptible than others. A 2017 survey found that 20 per cent of top-performing leaders in the UK suffered burnout. In Australia, a spike in the number of suicides by doctors has raised alarm bells about burnout in the medical profession.
“Often people who are very driven have very high expectations of themselves,” says Cotton. “That’s hard to sustain in the long term.”
The role of organisations
A workplace culture that glorifies overwork, where employees are expected to work excessive hours and take work home, puts staff at greater risk of burning out.
Conversely, a culture that actively sets clear boundaries around workloads, helps staff manage work-life integration through policies such as workplace flexibility, and encourages conversations about stress offers protection against burnout.
Leaders can set an example by role modelling healthy behaviours, such as taking lunch breaks, and publicly acknowledging times when they have struggled with things like workload and stress.
“It’s as simple as saying, ‘It’s been a rough couple of months – I know I’m feeling it. If anyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed, please speak up and let’s see how we can best support you,’” says Schaefer.
After all, she says, “Often it will be a lot of the senior leaders who put up their hand if you ask has anyone experienced burnout. It’s not a pleasant experience, it affects your physical health, your psychological health, your relationships, your ability to work, and nobody wants that. I see an awareness in organisations that it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Tips to avoid burnout
1. Understand the signs of burnout.
Recognise what it looks like, both when you’re thriving and when you’re stressed, says Schaefer.
2. Make stress management art of your routine.
The best place to start is physical activity. “Aerobic exercise has been linked to a decrease in cortisol, which is our stress hormone, and it also releases endorphins, which are some of the feel-good chemicals in our brain,” says Schaefer.
3. The importance of sleep can't be underestimated
When we’re not getting enough sleep, it interferes with our memory and our ability to think and concentrate. Getting at least six to eight hours of sleep is really important for stress management.
4. Priorities self-care.
There are only 24 hours in the day – you’re always going to have demands, and you’re always going to have deliverables.
"Be clear on what your non-negotiables are,” says Cotton. “We never expect our cars to run on empty, and yet so often we expect so much of ourselves without putting fuel in our tank.”
5. Seek help earlier rather than later.
See your doctor and talk to your manager about what support is available at work. Many employers have an employee assistance program provider that can offer counselling and advice.