The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines burnout as:
Entry 1: Noun
“1, the cessation of operation, usually of a heat or rocket engine
2, exhaustion of physical emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”
Entry 2: Verb
“1, to drive out or destroy by fire
2, to cause to fail, wear out, or become exhausted. Especially from overwork or overuse”
I find the link with fire compelling. Have you ever watched a match burn? I mean really watched. Not just lit it and immediately used it for a purpose. Matches burn with amazing ferocity – and speed. They use an awesome amount of energy, very quickly, and when they are burnt out, they are cold, dark and purposeless.
This is very different from the way a candle burns. A candle burns slowly over a long period of time, providing light and being useful for far, far longer than the match that lit it.
The World Health Organisation revised its definition of burnout fairly recently. They describe it as “a syndrome conceptualised as a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance (coldness) regarding one’s job, and
- Reduced professional efficacy
Dr Elaine Cheung from Northwestern University explains that while other psychological conditions (like depression, anxiety and panic disorders) can affect our ability to function at work, burnout is a condition that comes from working too hard. It can result in these other psychological issues, but it doesn’t come from them.
Essentially, burnout is a state of exhaustion: emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. If the stress and feelings of being overwhelmed continue, then you are likely to also begin to lose interest and motivation.
Basically, you are the match instead of the candle. The fire is gone, and only cold and dark remain.
Burnout reduces your productivity, it saps your energy, it makes you feel helpless, hopeless and cynical. And the worst part is that these negative effects can spill out into other areas of your life, affecting your friends and family. If allowed to go on for too long, burnout can begin to take a physical and medical toll on you. It can reduce your immune response, upset your body chemistry and result in adrenal fatigue.
Burnout affects at least 5-7% of the general population! That percentage can go as high as 44% for specific professions or roles. Burnout can affect any person who is overloaded with work (or responsibilities), who has a lack of autonomy or feels like they have lost control over their lives and who feels isolated, alone or misunderstood.
Burnout has increased fairly exponentially since the Covid Pandemic began in 2020. And yet, it is still not taken nearly as seriously as it should be.
Many people who are suffering burnout are embarrassed. They see it as a sign of weakness and don’t understand that it’s their body’s way of warning them that they need to slow down and re-evaluate the way they are doing things.
When you are developing a cold or flu, your body will give you a headache or cause you to sneeze – it is warning you that is something is wrong. It is letting you know that you need to slow down, wrap up warmly and rest so that it can do its job and fight this illness.
When you are going through burnout, or on the verge of it, your body will warn you. Excessive exhaustion, mental fatigue, feelings of disengagement. You need to slow down, wrap up warmly and rest. There is no shame in taking care of your mental health, anymore than there is shame in taking a day off to fight the flu.
This needs to be recognised and understood.
There are ways to deal with and heal burnout, but if you won’t recognise the problem in the first place then you will never apply the solution.
If you are feeling like that used up match, please reach out to us and begin talking about it. You are not alone, you are not weak and there is no need to be embarrassed or ashamed. Let’s get your fire burning again!
This article was originally published on LinkedIn, you can read it there if you prefer.