- An Introduction
happens when people who have previously
been highly committed to a job lose all
interest and motivation. Sadly, this can
spell the end of a successful career.
strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard
working and successful people – and
it therefore holds a special fear for those
who care passionately about their careers
and about the work they do.
explains what burnout is. It then helps
you to recognize the warning signs in yourself,
shows you how to avoid it, and helps you
to know what to do if you have already burned
Two important definitions of burnout are:
- “A state of
physical, emotional and mental exhaustion
caused by long term involvement in emotionally
demanding situations.” - Ayala
Pines & Elliott Aronson
- “A state
of fatigue or frustration brought about
by devotion to a cause, way of life,
or relationship that failed to produce
the expected reward.” –
Herbert J Freudenberger
them, these definitions embrace the essence
of burnout, with the first stressing the
part that exhaustion plays in it, and the
second stressing the sense of disillusionment
that is at its core.
can become exhausted. What is so poignant
about burnout is that it mainly strikes
people who are highly committed to their
work: You can only "burn out"
if you have been "alight" in the
first place. While exhaustion can be overcome
with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep
sense of disillusionment, and is not experienced
by people who can take a more cynical view
of their work.
– an important factor
In our article on the
of stress, we looked at the way
that Hans Selye, one of the founding fathers
of stress research, looked at burnout. Over
many hundreds of experiments, Selye looked
at the way in which animals handled long-term
stress. What he saw was that after an initial
period of adaptation, they survived very
well for quite a long period of time until,
then all of a sudden, their resistance collapsed
without any obvious direct cause.
also saw this with bomber pilots in the
Second World War, who would fly effectively
for many missions, but who would then fall
apart as pilot fatigue set in.
probably all seen similar patterns in the
past, where people become exhausted and
their performance suffers. We may all have
worked so hard at something, for so long,
that the easy things become difficult and
life loses its flavor. These are times when
rest (often in the form of a good holiday)
helps us to approach the situation with
a new vigor.
and long-term stress contribute to burnout,
but they are not the most destructive parts
– the underlying cause
The real damage of burnout comes from the
sense of deep disillusionment that lies
at its heart.
us get our sense of identity and meaning
from our work. We may have started our careers
with high ideals or high ambitions and may
have followed these with passion.
easy to see in doctors and teachers, who
may have a strong desire to help other people
to be the best that they can be. Good lawyers
may have a passion for justice. Others may
be ambitious for promotion or may want to
“make a difference” to people
or organizations in some other way. In all
of these cases, these ideals can drive a
highly motivated, passionate approach to
incredible what we can achieve when we truly
believe in what we are doing: We are hard
working, effective, full of initiative,
energetic and selfless. We can find ourselves
doing much more than we are contracted to
do, working much longer hours. Even more,
we enjoy doing this. We find it easy to
enter the hugely satisfying state
of flow. Particularly when we are appreciated
for what we do, and when we are able to
see good results from our work, this satisfaction
can help us to overcome enormous difficulties.
not surprising that people showing this
level of resilience and commitment to their
work are often spectacularly successful.
comes when things become too much. Perhaps
exhaustion sets in because people have been
working too hard for too long. Perhaps performance
begins to slip because of this. Perhaps
the problem being solved is too great, and
the resources available are too meager.
Perhaps supportive mentors move on and are
replaced by people who do not appreciate
the heroic job that is being done, or do
not subscribe to the ideals that drive performance.
Perhaps co-workers or team members make
just too many emotional demands, or people
being served prove to be ungrateful and
proactive, energetic, committed people,
it is likely that we respond to obstacles
like these by increasing our commitment
and hard work. However, in these circumstances
it is possible that these efforts may have
little or no impact on the situation.
be where burnout begins to set in. As we
get less satisfaction from our jobs, the
downsides of these jobs become more troublesome.
As we get more tired, we have less energy
to give. If our organizations fail to support
us, we can get increasingly disenchanted
with them. We become increasingly disillusioned.
cases, we can lose faith completely in what
we are doing, and what our organizations
are doing, becoming cynical and embittered,
and feeling that our ideals and meanings
in life count for nothing.
Given what burnout is, the symptoms of burnout
are much as you would expect them to be.
Physical symptoms can include physical fatigue,
frequent illness and sleep problems.
symptoms include disillusionment with the
job; the loss of a sense of meaning and
cynicism towards our organizations or clients;
feelings of helplessness; frustration of
efforts and a lack of power to change events;
strong feelings of anger against the people
we hold responsible for the situation; and
feelings of depression and isolation.
symptoms can include increasing detachment
from co-workers, increased absenteeism,
an increased harshness in dealing with our
teams, marked reduction in our commitment
to our work, and increased alcohol consumption.
These symptoms reflect exhaustion and a
loss of satisfaction with work.
The first two tools that we look at help
you to understand where you stand with respect
Burnout Pressure Points”, helps
you to think about what you want out of
your job and rationally assess where your
particular areas of risk lie. The second
Burnout Self Test" then helps you
to assess whether you are currently at risk
you have identified that this is a danger,
the third tool (“Avoiding
Burnout”) gives pointers on how
you can avoid it. The final tool, “Coping
With Burnout”, helps you to think
through your options if you feel that you
have already burned out.
article helps you understand your personal
burnout pressure points...