When you get tired of working, there’s obviously a major difference between “I can’t wait for the weekend” and “I can’t wait to hand in my resignation because this job is sucking the life out of me.” The former might cross everyone’s mind at one point, while the latter might just be a signal that you’re already experiencing burnout.
What Is Burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as an “occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.” The phenomenon may impact someone’s health or warrant treatment. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an illness or health condition like heart disease or clinical depression. “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” according to WHO.
The organization also limits burnout to the occupational context—meaning it’s something that affects employees but it’s not applicable to other aspects of life (like being “burned out” as a parent). WHO enumerates three things that happens when someone is actually burning out: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.”
From a medical perspective, burnout at work has to be assessed together with other aspects of health and life that need improvement. Dr. Rolando "Oyie" Balburias, the Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner behind Go2Health and a Board Certified Doctor in General Internal Medicine, says, “In my practice, I use a questionnaire—a Self-Care Questionnaire—in order to determine if an individual already knows how to identify the areas of his or her life that are well-tended and those that could use more time and attention. It is a tool to help them see what they are doing to care for themselves.” Through this, he can pinpoint if burnout is the source of an individual’s chronic stress or if it’s part of a bigger picture.
The 12 Stages Of Burnout
To better explain the phenomena, psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North came up with a 12-stage model that shows how burnout progresses. Through this list, you’ll also see the signs and symptoms to watch out for, so you can tell if you’re burning out.
- Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition)
It usually happens to the “best” employees—those who are ~extra~ committed to their jobs. Either you’re eager to be handed more work (to demonstrate what you’re capable of) or you find it difficult to say “no” to extra work.
- Working harder
Because of your high expectations of yourself, you continue to accept additional work obligations. At some point, you’ll find it difficult to prioritize tasks. And your main goal? Just meeting every deadline.
- Neglecting own needs
You sacrifice sleep, eating, and your social life just to finish your tasks. You don’t realize that your habits are unhealthful, though, and you don’t really see that you’re making minor mistakes because of your lifestyle.
- Displacement of conflicts and needs
The first physical manifestations of stress, such as feeling worn out, can appear here. You start coming to work late, submitting things past their deadlines, and missing appointments, and you constantly find excuses for these problems.
- No longer any time for non-work-related needs
It’s like nothing is more important that work anymore—not even your loved ones, leisure activities, and personal values.
- Increasing denial of the problem and decreasing flexibility of thought or behavior
Here, you encounter more problems and tend to blame time pressure and your workload. You start criticizing your bosses and teammates. However, you fail to recognize that the problems are arising because of your lifestyle changes.
- Withdrawal, lack of direction, cynicism
Instead of depending on your partner, family, or friends, you feel like they’re just another burden. On top of the lack of support system, you might cope with stress through alcohol and other vices.
- Behavioral changes or psychological reactions
The people you’re usually with notice that you’re changing. Your loved ones might feel concerned, especially when you seem like you don’t care about anything anymore.
- Depersonalization or loss of contact with self and own needs
At this point, you don’t see yourself and others as valuable. You just focus on surviving every day, but you don’t really attend to your needs. Your health is far from your priorities, and you might start feeling that your life is meaningless.
- Inner emptiness, anxiety, addictive behavior
You feel more anxious, exhausted, and useless. To cope with these feelings, you get preoccupied with overeating, bingeing on alcohol, even increased sexual activity, or other vices. Some people might even use recreational drugs.
- Increasing feeling of meaninglessness and lack of interest
This is when depression becomes apparent—you feel more helpless, hopeless, and worthless. You might find the future bleak, but you’re indifferent when you think about it.
- Physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening
At this last stage, you feel physically drained on top of being mentally and emotionally unstable. You start noticing the alarming changes in your body because of overworking. Aside from obvious physical symptoms of stress, you may even develop suicidal thoughts. This is an emergency that has to be properly addressed right away.
How To Prevent And Treat Burnout
Obviously, the problem can be life-threatening if you let it get to the end stages, especially the point of depression. So, what’s the best way to prevent it?
Dr. Oyie advises, “Self-care is the best way to avoid and prevent burnout.” The doctor, who has been in practice for 21 years and has focused on the functional medicine approach for eight years, further notes that, “Self-awareness and mindfulness are the first steps to self-care.” This means that you have to admit it if your job has been a constant source of stress. You also have to recognize how that stress is affecting your thoughts, behavior, and overall health.
“If your chronic stress is already manifesting symptoms or conditions affecting the quality of your life, then it’s time to let a medical professional step in. He or she will evaluate whether your symptoms or conditions are manifestations of an actual disease or if they have a psychosocial component as the root cause,” advises Dr. Oyie.
If you're at the early stages of burnout, you can try modifying your lifestyle to recover. You have to find ways to sleep better, eat better, and establish true work-life balance. You can go for relaxing activities like pampering treatments, travel, or even simply taking a mental health leave from work. If needed, talk to your boss about lessening your workload or start delegating tasks when you can. You also need to heed that wakeup call that you can't be perfect at work all the time, and you can't please everyone.
Dr. Oyie further notes, "Burnout from chronic stress is unavoidable. Yet, it’s also manageable. You can change your responses to stress, and that have a huge impact on your resilience. You can stop the cycle of chronic stress and worry with small changes. Improving your ability to transform stress will strengthen your energy reserves, improve tissue health, and create a supportive environment for healthy aging."
A Simple Tip To Deal With Burnout: Just Breathe
Now, when you do seek medical help, you might wonder if the treatment would be inconvenient and expensive. Dr. Oyie says that it doesn’t have to be. “The first, simplest, and easiest way to deal with chronic stress is to breathe properly. Proper breathing has the power to transform stress and can help us deal with it with confidence and strength.
“Other treatment modalities that can be used are meditation, relaxation exercises, and guided imagery,” according to Doc Oyie. “These are some of the many mind-body medicine tools and techniques that can be used to treat burnout as a consequence of chronic stress.”
And if you get diagnosed with depression, you could get prescription medications, too. In some cases, psychological therapy may be recommended. Hopefully, you don’t get to that point and beat burnout before it’s too late.
Dr. Rolando Balburias, M.D., FPCP, IFMCP is a Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner. He is also Board Certified in General Internal Medicine, European Board Certified in Nutritional Medicine, and European Board Certified in Anti-Ageing Medicine. Find out more about Dr. Oyie and functional medicine at www.go2health.ph. You may also reach out to him through the following channels: email via firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook.
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