Real burnout creeps up on people

By Val Leveson

Chronic work demands can run you flat like a car battery, say experts

Single young males with poor self-esteem and with an avoidant coping style are at greatest risk in the workplace.
Single young males with poor self-esteem and with an avoidant coping style are at greatest risk in the workplace.

Burnout is an extremely overused word. It's not uncommon for people who feel they're a bit stressed to use that word to exaggerate what they're feeling. However, there is such a thing as real burnout and it can have serious health affects.

Helena Cooper-Thomas, senior lecturer of the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, describes burnout as "a chronic emotional response to severe work demands". She says that those with direct contact with other people [emotional work] are particularly at risk - that means teachers, nurses, those in customer services and other such professions.

"It's jobs that require a lot of emotional management - when a person feels he or she has to hide their emotions at work, for example a manager who is getting frustrated may hide that in order to keep his or her staff focused and happy. That can cause a lot of stress."

Men and women are equally at risk of burnout, but interestingly, research shows that younger people are more likely to be affected - employees under 30 years old are most prone.

Unmarried people are more at risk than married people - especially unmarried men.

Cooper-Thomas says some of the signs of burnout are:

Feeling emotionally exhausted;

Having a sense of depersonalisation and cynicism about one's work;

Not really seeing people as individuals any more.

"Someone who used to be caring and thoughtful starts being offhand and starts treating people impersonally."

A key to knowing if you're suffering from burnout, Cooper-Thomas says, is feeling that you're not able in your job any longer. "You're surviving but not having an impact. You may feel that you are ineffective while at the same time being effective.

"You've lost confidence."

Auckland's Dr Stress, John McEwan, says that burnout creeps up. "Stress upon stress gets them to reach a point when they're not even perceiving that there's a problem. It's like anorexia - the person keeps on going until someone intervenes."

Cooper-Thomas says burnout can happen when the demands of the job exceed the resources of the individual; that is, they have too much work. There may be role ambiguity where the person's manager has not given enough information on priorities. There may be a lack of social support from colleagues and the manager.

Burnout can manifest in health problems such as heart attacks, addiction and other stress-related illnesses.

The type of personality that is more prone to burnout, according to research, she says, is people with poor self-esteem and with an avoidant coping style. These people have an external locus of control - meaning that they are more fatalistic and think that things happen to them due to external events beyond their control.

As far as interventions are concerned, Cooper-Thomas says that it can be helpful to deal with the exhaustion through programmes focused on the individual, such as relaxation, mindfulness, time management, team building and/or meditation. Specific "recovery" experiences can also help by enabling the individual to regain their energy.

"This could be through breaks in the day, such as enjoyable conversations between colleagues, or experiences after work, such as pursuing a hobby. Such pleasant activities mentally refuel individuals so that they are more prepared for further work."

McEwan suggests burnout can be likened to the flattening of a car's batteries. "With normal battery usage the car battery can recharge and bounce back." One way of recharging a car is to motor along to a distant beach, thereby giving it a good run without too many traffic lights, McEwan says. People under stress have to do that too - take time off.

McEwan says: "Moses was right - we need to take at least one day off a week. Make that a tech-free day. Every 28 days you should take a couple of days off, every 12 weeks, five to seven days off, particularly if your work requires a high level of mental acuity. Then at the end of each year take a decent break."

Burnout is a chronic emotional response to severe work demands. Some of the symptoms are:
• You feel emotionally exhausted.
• You develop a cynicism about your work.
• You lose confidence.
• You're like a car with a flat battery.
• You may feel depressed or anxious.

- NZ Herald

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