Am I a burnout? What can I do about it?

The concept Burnout (syndrome) has become a major element of our every day vocabulary. The Californian psychologist Christina Maslach first examined it in 1976. She identified the syndrome’s three components:

  • Emotional exhaustion: The sense of being exhausted and depleted by professional contact with other people.
  • Depersonalization: Apathy, insensitivity, disinterest in people, work processes and –performance.
  • Reduced productivity: The feeling of no longer being capable to accomplish a task well and successfully.
Tragically a burn-out-syndrome primarily affects people who initially excelled with a high degree of engagement, conscientiousness and commitment. It is not per chance that the word burn-out denotes the concept of something burning out in other words, of those who “burned” first; somebody who had been committed and “on fire” for his/her activity, who had been enthusiastic and ambitious could also eventually “burn-out” just like a candle that had been lit on both ends. Among our personality types we also find a few who tend to be more at risk to fall victim to this syndrome, than others: the Engaged Idealist, the Social, the Good-natured and the Reliable Realist as well as the Sensitive Doer (take our career test to find out if you belong to one of those types). All of them have a special reputation for a sense of commitment in their personal and professional areas combined with the tendency to reprioritize their own needs for all too long. In case you belong to one of the above-mentioned types, please look out for yourself.
Generally burnout sneaks up on people. Initially the employee is especially idealistic, engaged and ready to go. Due to high expectations (external and own), continuing inability to set limits and to relax eventually culminates in a feeling of mental overload – one ends up with the feeling of not being able to handle the task regardless of the effort. Naturally this does not contribute to motivation and a positive attitude. At this point the affected person generally feels guilty; on one hand because he/she is not meeting his/her own and the expectations of others, and on the other hand because he/she is aware of reacting increasingly irritated and sullen within his/her environment. Now he/she doubles his/her efforts – after all, the job has to be done. When the desired success does not manifest itself, that person feels helpless and without hope; the job feels like a bottomless barrel. Exhaustion, aversion to the job, the customers and colleagues begin to take hold. The victim becomes increasingly listless or else more and more aggressive towards himself and others. Severe despondency, apathy, anhedonia (joylessness) and desperation are the end of the game. At this point in time people often also consider suicide. The symptoms of the fully developed syndrome are akin to classic depression including psychosomatic reactions.

Among others typical indications for a developing burn-out-syndrome:
  • Resistance and displeasure at going to work, high absentee rates, work-to-rule
  • Feelings of failure, demoralization, apathy
  • Guilt feelings
  • Daily feelings of fatigue and exhaustion
  • Problems concentrating
  • Psychosomatic reactions: Sleep disorders, headaches, gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Medication-, drug-, alcohol consumption
  • Personal difficulties: Relationship problems, shopping addiction, etc.
If you agree with several of the following statements (taken from questionnaires to measure the syndrome) you should question whether your professional situation is still in sync:

  • At the end of the workday I feel depleted.
  • Working all day really stresses me.
  • Since I am doing this work I have become indifferent to people.
  • I really don’t care what happens to my customers, clients, projects.
  • In the course of my work I have not achieved many rewarding goals.
  • I don’t believe that my work positively impacts the lives of others.
Since the objective work situation usually does not lend itself to any or only minor changes it is left to the individual to protect him or herself from a burnout.

Here are a few tips for our susceptible personality types, – but naturally also for all others - how work and leisure time can be better balanced:

Examine your priorities!

No one can be a super-mother, a super-manager, a super-wife, and a super-housewife (maybe even a super-daughter for elderly parents), all at the same time! To put a point to it: No one must be! Create relief for yourself in areas that are less important to you personally, that is to say, where relief is doable. Speak to those who are close to you and let them know when something gets to be too much. Especially the perfectionists among us tend to suffer silently and then at some point simply collapse. That helps no one.

Set realistic goals for yourself!

Frequently the expectations we set for ourselves are much higher than those we have of others. A helpful suggestion: Take a minute; look at yourself and your life and for a minute image that it is not yours, but your best friend‘s for whom you care deeply. What advice would you give him/her? Most of the time we are a lot more relentless with ourselves than with those for whom we care.

Keep an eye on your “inner dialogue”!

Do you tend to have conversations with yourself when you regularly castigate yourself for your incompetence, belittle the results of your work and demoralize yourself? Try to incorporate other, more helpful sentences into this dialogue, for instance: “I am the most important person in my life!”- “I am allowed to make mistakes, just like everybody else!” – “I do good work and that takes time!” – “Am I really going to wish on my deathbed that I had worked longer today?” – „I am entitled to idleness and fun in my life!”

Look for support in your professional environment!

What about team meetings, supervisions, collegial help? Is there something that can be done to help? Sometimes the others are just waiting for a suggestion!

Take a close look at your “Work-Life-Balance”

What is the work to leisure time ratio? Hobbies, friends and relaxation are not a “waste of time” or “loafing” but important resources to re-charge the batteries. You wouldn’t expect a car to run forever on one tank of gas, would you? Exercise, the correct nourishment, sufficient sleep, meditation, yoga – all of that helps to remain healthy, resilient and better withstand the professional pressures. If you consider your leisure time under that aspect, it may be easier to give it the proper priority!

Practice to say No!

Recall in which situations you have recently said, “yes” instead of “no” even though you really wanted to. In your mind practice typical situations where you tend to let yourself be overextended and for the next opportunity prepare friendly but firm refusals for the important people in your environment. Examples could be:
  • Under normal circumstances I would have no problem to deal with that, but today I have an important appointment and must leave on time.
  • Unfortunately I cannot take on an additional task if I am expected to finish this project properly and on time.
  • I’ll be happy to do this job if it is ok for me to let the other one sit for two more days. Will that work?
  • I very much appreciate your offer for me to undertake the additional area of responsibility because it shows me that you are satisfied with my efforts. However, my schedule is already overcrowded; I can’t possibly take on any additional responsibilities and do a good job. I dislike doing things half way.
  • I don’t think that belongs into my area of expertise.
  • I’ll take care of that for you today, but please take note that this is an exception and should not become the rule.
Dissatisfaction at work can be hazardous to your mental health and well-being. On the other side, job satisfaction can significantly contribute to your life satisfaction. Psychologists call this the "spillover effect": people who are satisfied with work also tend to be satisfied with other specific domains of life and with life overall. Your perfect job will not only keep you healthy, it will also help you to lead a happy life. You might want to try our iPersonic Career Test in order to find out which job suits your personality best. Always remember: Your work is your most important life activity in terms of time and energy!