What is burnout and how can it be prevented in the workplace – insights from clinical psychologists



People close to you, including family members, friends, and co-workers, often express their “stress” at this time of year. As the end of the year approaches, people are likely to be feeling tired, irritable, and overwhelmed.

The definition of stress is the physical, psychological, and socio-spiritual response to a demand or stressor. The stressor can be a lack (such as unemployment), a threat to physical or mental health, or a deadline at work. A certain amount of stress is necessary for performance and sometimes even pleasant, according to Hans Seyle, the “father” of stress research.

As social beings at our core, humans rely on others to organize both our internal and external environments. Although we cannot survive without interpersonal relationships, engaging with others in high-stress situations (e.g., lengthy patient care) can be emotionally draining and lead to the onset of stress symptoms. As with everything human, too much stress, or the wrong kind of stress, can suppress the immune system and lead to disease and ailments.

Burnout is a vague term and can be communicated in a variety of ways, mostly as more complicated and damaging than stress. The scientific literature defines it as a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and impaired functioning.

Depersonalization is the state of feeling disconnected from yourself, like looking at yourself from the outside. This can result in cynicism, loss of empathy, and harsh and insensitive behavior.

Difference between burnout and stress

There is no doubt that stress and burnout are related experiences. But it’s important to focus on the differences between them. Stress is associated with the stresses people face on a daily basis and can also be beneficial. Burnout and stress begin to intersect when stress becomes protracted and chronic, leading to distress and negative effects. But burnout differs from stress in important ways.

In the work context, some of the clear warning signs that someone is on the verge of, or experiencing, burnout—or a level of distress beyond stress—are when they begin to doubt their self-competence. Despite being able, an employee with burnout may feel increasingly inadequate or ineffective. Reported fatigue can be described as internal exhaustion or as complete exhaustion and overexertion. In addition, this normally caring and considerate person may exhibit a lack of concern for others or an uncharacteristic “I don’t care” attitude.

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It should come as no surprise that social care workers – including those in healthcare, mental health and the correctional system – suffer from burnout frequently. Exhaustion, lack of empathy, and doubts about one’s own competence are just a few symptoms that can result from prolonged, unabated exposure to other people’s problems and toxic, unfavorable working conditions.

The effects of burnout can affect both the individual and others around them. Consider instances where frustration arises where a door is slammed or kicked. Burnout can be accompanied by unhealthy interpersonal relationships at work and at home.

Stress, burnout and the meaning of life

Although burnout is usually thought of as a psychological process, it is more complex. Despite the fact that some people are more stressed than others, their stress is less likely to lead to burnout because they are more associated with important things in their lives.

Some beliefs about burnout neglect the primal human search for meaning in life. A meaningful existence involves strong social ties, positive pride in our complicated identities based on “where we come from,” feeling purposeful, and a belief in living a life that matters.

One of the main problems modern civilization is currently facing is loneliness and isolation, which naturally frustrates the desire for authentic connection and meaning. Belonging and interpersonal connections are central components of meaning inside and outside of the workplace.

In this day and age, people often carry their desire for meaning and purpose into their professional lives. Some people may long to see that their work has meaning beyond its purely economic benefit. They are interested in how their service or product fits with the needs and desires of society. Employees can be motivated when they know that someone depends on and benefits from their contributions at work. According to research, the perceived meaning of work can prevent burnout even in extremely stressful professional situations.

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prevent burnout

There are a variety of self-help and community tools and advice for burnout prevention. I remember the stress management workshops I used to facilitate. Understanding how the body-mind is designed to resist stress and being able to cope with stress are insightful and critical to mental health care.

For example, there can be parental burnout, where a new parent feels unable to do basic chores like bathing young children or doing the dishes. So, by helping a stressed mother get social support, she can take the needed “me time” and detach herself from the constant demands for nurturing. This protects both the mother’s mental health and the well-being of the children.

In my practice as a psychologist, in addition to using stress reduction techniques, I find it important to allocate time to consider systemic and personal alignment with goals and values ​​and to take action. Thinking about whether our personal and work lives are worth living in is in itself a stress-relief exercise.

Regular intimacy with our higher values ​​is nourishing, increases our vitality, and makes us feel part of an interwoven framework of meaning. Alternatively, creating a home or work environment where humble acts of kindness, generosity, and helpfulness are frequently demonstrated can prevent the build-up of chronic stress and anxiety.

Therefore, unless steps are taken to make work a place where employees can engage meaningfully with their tasks, even the best workplace stress management programs will fail to reduce the risk of burnout. Employers may need to understand the benefits of trying to create a strong network of secure interactions among employees across the organization.

For employees to feel heard, recognized and valued, it would be necessary to foster a genuine sense of belonging through the conscious promotion of social cohesion and the strategic promotion of the paradoxes of equality, unity and diversity. Creativity in the workplace thrives in an environment of socio-spiritual visibility and security. A quiet and safe work or living environment is the cornerstone of preventing and controlling stress and burnout.

By Shahieda Jansen, Clinical Psychologist and Acting Regional Director, University of South Africa

This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished with permission. Read the original article here.

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