By Kayla Cure

In a world of increasing stress and decreasing engagement, one word seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue: burnout. Over the past few years, burnout has become a common buzzword, and because of its overuse, it has lost some of its meaning. Many people use the term burnout to refer to any stress at work from pressing deadlines to difficult relationships with colleagues, to over-exhaustion at work.

However, burnout in its true meaning is a serious psychological syndrome and often harmful to those experiencing it. According to WebMD, Burnout is “a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress… burnout can affect your physical and mental health if you don’t acknowledge or treat it.”

There are three types of burnout that you should be aware of:

Overload Burnout. Your pursuit of success in your job will force you to keep working until it compromises your health and personal life.

Under-Challenged Burnout. If you feel bored at your job, you’re likely being under-challenged and this will cause you to distance yourself from your work and avoid responsibilities.

Neglect Burnout. You may feel incompetent or helpless at work which can lead to imposter syndrome, a feeling of being a fraud or not deserving the accolades you receive for the work you’ve done.

To know if you truly are experiencing burnout and would benefit from getting help, it’s important to learn the difference between burnout as a syndrome and burnout the buzzword. Consider the following questions to help you discern if you are truly experiencing burnout:

  • Do you feel you have an unsustainable workload?
  • Do you feel a perceived lack of control over your work-life?
  • Do you feel a lack of fairness in your organization?
  • Do you feel you are receiving insufficient rewards (recognition, wage, power, respect, appreciation) for your work efforts?
  •  Are there mismatched values between you and your organization?[1] 
  • Do you feel a commitment to your organization and those you work with?
  • Do you love your job?
  • Are you a top performer in your organization?
  • Are you highly engaged in your work?

At some point in their careers, many people suffer from exhaustion, extreme stress and a lack of commitment in their work lives, but the vast majority of them are not experiencing true burnout. Rather, they are experiencing some symptoms of burnout. However, research tells us that in order for a person to be experiencing burnout as a syndrome, all or most of the symptoms above must be present.

According to Psychology Today, burnout is characterized by intense and specific signs such as:

  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • A sense of dread about work
  • Frequent feelings of cynicism, anger, or irritability
  • Feeling like you can no longer do your job effectively 
  • Those in helping professions (such as doctors) may notice dwindling compassion toward those in their care

Burnout is an organizational problem and you’ll likely notice that you are not the only one in your environment experiencing these symptoms. Because of this, the solutions are more complex than the self-care rituals suggested for those experiencing extreme stress and exhaustion, but not necessarily burnout.

In order to address burnout appropriately, it is important to know how to discern the difference between short-term situational stress that should still be addressed, but is less harmful long-term, and burnout, which includes dangerous emptiness, depression, and hopelessness that can become life-threatening if not treated.

Overusing a word can decrease its meaning. For instance,  the word “trigger” originated in psychological studies to help veterans of World War I deal with their PTSD. It was then later used to help victims of various other traumas as well to uncover the triggers that would set them off, such as a car exhaust backfiring. Once “trigger” became a buzzword, it became somewhat of a joke that people would use to make fun of those they deemed too sensitive, invalidating the powerful emotions of those who were trying to deal with extremely traumatic events. Much like this occurrence, the term burnout is losing some of its meaning due to overuse.

If you determine burnout is indeed what you are experiencing, the first step to addressing it is to talk openly with a trusted individual in your life, your spouse, family members, friends, or a therapist. This will open the door to getting the help you need and avoiding negative consequences.

Likewise, if burnout as a syndrome doesn’t fit for you, you may benefit from broadening the definition of your situation by considering any of the following emotions:

  • Exhaustion (emotional or physical)
  • Fatigued
  • Frazzled
  • Weary
  • Debilitated
  • Lethargic
  • Unengaged
  • Unmotivated

When you are experiencing any of these issues in your work or personal life, you may also benefit from opening up to a trusted individual. Talking through your emotions gives you control over your situation and can help you move in a positive direction. Chances are, you will become burned out in your life-time or will know someone who is. Knowing the difference between burnout the syndrome and burnout the buzzword could prove invaluable to your own life and those you care about.

Keep an eye out for next week’s blog where we will uncover what burnout looks like at the organizational level and how leaders as well as employees can recover from burnout.