Identifying burnout (Part 1)

Heavy workloads and deadline pressures have become a fact of work life. But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it’s a serious problem.

Burnout feels a lot like depression, but it’s not the same thing. If you had to sum it up in one word, that word would be ‘exhaustion’. Burnout makes your life feel like you are wading through mud that comes all the way up to your neck, 24 hours a day. You are physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausted, and you never seem to escape that feeling.

So how do you know you have burnout? Psychologist Christina Maslach says burnout has three main components.

Exhaustion is the central symptom, undermining your ability to work effectively and feel positive about what you’re doing. You are unable to concentrate or see the big picture; even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous, and it becomes difficult to drag yourself both into and out of the office.

The second component is cynicism or depersonalisation: you are no longer engaged with what you’re doing. You feel detached, negative – even callous – towards assignments, projects, colleagues and customers. This can be the result of work overload, but it’s also likely to occur in an environment of high conflict, unfairness, and lack of participation in decision-making – at work or at home.

The final component is inefficacy – you feel your skills slipping and worry that you won’t be able to succeed in certain situations or accomplish certain tasks. Inefficacy often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work.

Situational factors are the biggest contributors to burnout, so changes at the job, team, or organisational level are often required to address all the underlying issues. However, this often isn’t possible, so you have to take matters into your own hands, and burnout-proof yourself through rest and renewal, and taking care of your physical and psychological wellbeing.


NOTE: If you feel unaccountably fatigued, make an appointment to see your doctor. Fatigue is a symptom of many illnesses, so don’t just assume it’s burnout. Also try to describe your symptoms in detail to help your doctor narrow down the possible causes.

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