Burnout: Anyone Feeling the Burn?


Nancy Bergeron, RPsych | n[email protected]

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Today, the term is not only used for helping professions. It can affect anyone, from career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and parents.

Burnout is not simply a result of working long hours or juggling too many tasks, though those both play a role. The depression, cynicism, and exhaustion that are characteristic of burnout most often occur when we are not in control of how a job is carried out, at work or at home, or are asked to complete tasks that conflict with our sense of self. Some other examples are working toward a goal that doesn’t resonate for us, or when we feel a lack of support. If we don’t tailor responsibilities to match our true calling, or at least take a break once in a while, we could face burnout, as well as the mental and physical health problems that often come along with it. These can include headaches, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as increased potential for drug, alcohol, shopping, gambling, food, (and the list goes on) abuse or addiction.

Some key signs of burnout are physical and mental exhaustion, a sense of dread of work or social interactions, and frequent feelings of cynicism, irritability, or anger. Those of us in helping professions (such as doctors/nurses/therapists) may notice dwindling compassion toward those in our care. Feeling like we can no longer do our job effectively may also signal burnout.

By definition, burnout is an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be alleviated. If stress is short-lived or tied to a specific goal, it is generally not harmful. If the stress feels never-ending and comes with feelings of emptiness, apathy, and hopelessness, it may be an indication that we have burned out. Compassion fatigue, (a close relative to burnout), is the condition when we become numb to the suffering of others, we feel less able to display empathy toward others, or we lose hope in our ability to be helpful. This most often affects healthcare professionals, military persons, or any of us who are regularly exposed to human suffering. Caring for a child with special needs and/or an aging parent may trigger burnout or compassion fatigue. Some of the signs include persistent fatigue, frequent crying spells, and feelings of frustration, anger, and hopelessness toward the person in our care.

How Do We Circumvent Burnout?

When we have too many conflicting responsibilities, we need to simply and without explanation, say “no” to new tasks. We need to ensure that we schedule regular breaks, set start and stop times for tasks/work, and minimize multi-tasking in order to help maintain boundaries and reduce our feelings of burnout.

Write a list of warning signs that you are heading towards burnout. This is an example of my creeping into burnout list:

  • I start eating more prepared foods instead of homemade
  • The arthritis in my hands is flaring due to too much typing
  • I forget to schedule or reschedule my monthly massage appointments
  • I put off writing case notes until end of day or tomorrow
  • I start having trouble fall asleep

Now write a list of what you’re going to do if you notice the signs you’ve identified above. This is an example of my personal care list:

  • I start reading fiction instead of non-fiction/psychology books
  • I sleep more
  • I take a break from courses and continuing education training
  • I schedule chill-out time or social time where I don’t have to be ‘on’
  • I see less clients per day
  • I cook and bake for pleasure

If you are already past the recognition stage and fully in burnout, seek out support to help you navigate your way back to yourself. Great professional helpers have their own therapists to help keep us mentally strong, healthy, and hold us accountable in caring for ourselves to prevent burnout.