What is Burnout?

Burnout happens when the circumstances of our life no longer work for us, when we are no longer able to cope with the stress of our situation We struggle on, missing or ignoring all the warning signs – working harder and harder, getting less and less done – until our physical and emotional systems begin to fail. We are constantly striving to get control or return to normal yet feel overwhelmed at the task.

In ‘normal circumstances’, we tend to be motivated, committed, caring, conscientious and highly valued; we have energy, enthusiasm and clarity. In burnout these qualities diminish leaving us confused, lethargic, exhausted, irritated and unable to cope. This is why people who are burned out often see themselves as failing.

What causes burnout?

The impact, pressures and strains of modern society are increasing and most people are operating under enormous inner and outer stress. When this is combined with the need to have a positive self image, when self worth is connected to doing rather than being, then burnout becomes an increasing possibility.

The fear of failure is not only the result of burnout, but the cause of it as well. If your personal goals or the expectations and the demands in your job are too high, the risk of burnout is there.

Who is most at risk of burnout?

Although by no means alone, those in the caring professions are at a higher risk of burnout. The nature of all caring professions is giving, and the needs of others are endless. So nurses, doctors, psychiatrist, psychologists, mothers and teachers, anyone who works in caring or healing professions tends to run out of energy very easily. One of the biggest traps is the thought: “I should give help, and not ask for help – that could be seen as a sign of weakness”.

Hospitals, health services, schools are nowadays offering more support and supervision for their staff to combat this problem so it is advisable to find out and use the support that is available.

We have listed some of the early signs of burnout below. To make your own quick assessment, see Are you at Risk of Burnout?

The signs of burnout

The early signs of burnout include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling emotionally empty
  • Lacking empathy for the needs of others
  • Frustation and irritability
  • Lack of concentration and short term memory
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Low libido
  • Insomnia or need for more sleep
  • Waking up not refreshed
  • Nervousness and tension
  • Digestive problems
  • Breathlessness
  • Irregularity in heartbeat
  • Lack of motivation
  • Comfort eating or drinking
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

Signs of burnout can also be found in blood tests. The blood changes in form, number and colour of the blood cells. The activity of the white cells is much lower with minimum oxygen level in the red blood cells and increased tendency for blood clotting. Transportation of toxins is reduced because of lack of oxygen, as a result the organ functions are reduced, the muscles ache and body becomes vulnerable to illness.

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