- Defining stress and burnout
- Signs and symptoms of burnout
- Causes of burnout
This article aims to provide clarification on the topics of stress and burnout. First, we look at the definitions of both; then, we explore the signs and symptoms of burnout before covering the causes of burnout. Finally, we end by looking at the importance of perception and causal attribution.
In our next article, we will explore interventions to manage stress and prevent/treat burnout.
Defining stress and burnout
Dr Justin M. Nash and colleagues consider that “stress results from any challenge or threat, either real or perceived, to normal functioning. The stress response is the body’s activation of physiological systems, namely the hypothalamic‐pituitary‐adrenal axis, to protect and restore functioning.”
Stress can be simplified as A response to demands that call for activation and the use of resources.
Stress is an integral part of growth and development; it can be positive and not necessarily harmful. Stress can help protect you, and it helps you rise to face your challenges.
Mild, short-term stress can be beneficial. We become more alert, energised, our thinking rate increases, concentration improves and our motivation and performance increases. The problem occurs when we experience prolonged stress with no intermittent recovery (rest). Unbroken high stress and the resulting heightened alertness breaks down our body and brain and lead to disease and exhaustion.
You can learn more about stress and how to manage it in this e-learning course.
The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used the term burnout was in 1974. However, burnout is not classified as a medical condition. Instead, it is seen as a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors.
A simple definition, provided by helpguide.org, is to describe burnout as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.“
Prolonged stress can result in the loss of interest and motivation in your work. As a result, your productivity can decrease, and it can leave you with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Some people also become cynical and resentful.
The scientific research on defining burnout
Maslach and Jackson (1986) famously described burnout as:
- Emotional exhaustion (now simply called exhaustion)—feeling that one’s emotional and physical reserves are depleted and overburdened.
- Depersonalisation—subsequently defined as cynicism and negative attitudes toward people.
- A diminished sense of personal accomplishment (now called personal efficacy).
Wilmar B. Schaufeli and Esther R. Greenglass (2001) define burnout as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that results from long-term involvement in work situations that are emotionally demanding.” Many consider that the feature of Exhaustion is the most significant one, a strong sense of feeling drained of mental, emotional and physical energy.
Burnout is a process in which exhaustion gradually builds up over time.
A person suffering from burnout might only become aware of it, consider the cause and decide to act when confronted by a situation that is particularly unexpected, negative, or important (Weiner, 1985). For example, it might be that a loved one informs them that they are never present. They experience lashing out at their children or working very long hours but feel that they do not achieve much during this time. Some consider depersonalisation as a coping mechanism, and a decrease in personal accomplishment is viewed as a result of burnout rather than a feature.
The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory authors, Tage S. Kristensen and colleagues (2005) consider that a critical feature is the “attribution of fatigue and exhaustion to specific domains or spheres in the person’s life”. One such domain is work, and a more specific domain is client work.”
- Personal burnout: The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion experienced by the person.
- Work-related burnout: The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that the person perceives as related to his/her work.
- Client-related burnout: “The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that the person perceives as related to his/her work with clients”.
By including these three domains, the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory can help identify “persons who are tired but who attribute the fatigue to non-work factors such as, e.g. health problems or family demands.”
Importantly Tage S. Kristensen and colleagues point out that “Burnout is not an unavoidable and negative process going from bad to worse. In this respect, the term “burnout” is rather misleading since it signals a one-way process.”
Self-awareness is the first part. There are effective ways to deal with burnout and improve the condition we will explore in our next article.
The difference between stress and burnout
As stated above, prolonged stress can lead to burnout. One sign that differentiates whether you are experiencing stress rather than burnout is the outcome of considering whether you are still motivated and have some energy left to try to get everything under control, or to deal with the pressure you are faced with or not?
If you are actually experiencing burnout, the outcome of this consideration will most likely be that you are not motivated and instead feel like any further attempts are hopeless. In that case, you are too exhausted to try, or you simply do not care anymore.
You could also ask yourself whether you feel over-engaged or disengaged (burnout)?
Burnout and depression
There are many similarities between the symptoms of burnout and depression. Some of these include: extreme exhaustion, feeling down and reduced performance. Burnout is considered predominantly work-related or related to parenting. In depression, negative thoughts and feelings are linked to all life areas and not just work or parenting.
Some of the typical symptoms of depression include low self-esteem (not just job-related), hopelessness in all areas of life and, in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies. However, these are not considered typical symptoms of burnout. Therefore people with burnout do not always have depression, although burnout significantly increases the risk of getting depression.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
- You often feel physically exhausted, reduced physical performance (strength and fitness), and it takes longer to recover after physical exercise.
- Trouble sleeping or waking up and finding it hard to fall asleep again.
- Frequent illness due to lowered immune system functioning.
- Increased cravings for foods high in sugar, salt, starch, and saturated fat.
- Regular headaches or muscle pain.
Regarding work, a person experiencing burnout is more likely to have lower job satisfaction and perceive a reduction in accomplishment and achievement at work than before they experienced exhaustion. Other emotional signs and symptoms include:
- Sense of failure and lowered self-esteem
- Decreased motivation.
- Feeling helpless, hopeless or trapped.
- Increase in negative feelings and cynicism.
- A sense of loneliness and a feeling of detachment.
- Decreased sense of life satisfaction.
- Decrease sense of accomplishment.
- Isolate yourself.
- Increased procrastination.
- Withdraw from responsibilities or become more selective in your work tasks.
- An attempt at coping via the use of alcohol, drugs or food.
- Increased frustration and irritability results in less patience and more outbursts towards others.
- Absenteeism or working less than before.
- It takes longer to make decisions.
Causes of burnout
There are individual and organisational/systemic factors that can lead to burnout. However, some researchers consider burnout’s predominant cause is dysfunctional organisations (Leiter & Maslach, 2001; Cherniss, C, 1993).
- A strong need for recognition.
- Need for control and the inability to delegate work.
- A willingness to loosen boundaries.
- Seeing work as only meaningful activity and therefore working too much.
- Not prioritising or lack of social connections or supportive relationships.
- Lack of sleep and other physical needs such as day time recovery, exercise and healthy eating.
Organisational / Systemic
- A lack of control of daily tasks.
- Unclear job or role expectations and objectives.
- Role conflict and ambiguity.
- A lack of meaning or a sense of purpose.
- Lack of feedback/recognition.
- Lack of a sense of belonging and relatedness.
- Lack of social or supervisor support.
- Limited decision-making (autonomy).
- Time pressure.
- Poor organisational communication.
- Poor work organisation and management.
- Increasing workload or responsibility without the necessary support.
- Monotonous or unchallenging work.
It is very important to consider how people perceive, understand, and explain their own psychological and physical symptoms or situation.
How do people perceive the causes of their symptoms, behaviour or the events they are experiencing. This perception also impacts how a person copes and deals with their situation. Their explanation shapes what they think, feel, the attitudes they form and the actions they do or do not take to deal with their situation.
Different factors, including our social role and position and the whole culture of the society we belong to, influence how we perceive and make meaning of our situation. If we are aware of a symptom, say fatigue, we will attempt to understand why we are experiencing this.
This process of determining the causes of our symptoms, behaviour or situation is called causal attribution.
Four factors are considered in causal attribution. They impact how we cope (self-agency).
- Casual locus: Internal vs External
- Controllable vs Not controllable
- Stable vs Unstable
- Global vs Specific
Causal locus: Internal vs External
Internal explanations related to their situation or outcomes from factors coming from within oneself. E.g., Personality traits, ability, effort, attitude.
A person who thinks their exhaustion is their fault due to their weakness will most likely experience a drop in self-esteem. On the other hand, if they consider the cause to be within their control, they are more likely to change by themselves. E.g. if they struggle to use a new computer system or process, they will seek a training course (develop ability).
External causes are related to our situation or the behaviour of others.
A person who considers that their exhaustion is due to their managers’ poor decisions (external) regarding resource allocation, unrealistic deadlines, or cost-cutting is associated with decreased organisational commitment. In addition, they might consider the organisation’s values are not in line with theirs; they might feel less attached to the organisation and may even become cynical and even angry towards the organisation.
Controllable vs Not controllable
The degree of control the person has over what they are experiencing. Can they impact the cause directly themselves, or can they influence other people in control who can make a difference?
Stable vs Unstable
Stable (constant, permanent, or unchanging in the short term) vs unstable factors (variable or temporary, can change in the short term). A person who considers that the cause of their exhaustion as stable and not under their control is more likely to engage in depersonalisation and may even lead to them voluntarily leaving their job. Signs of this might include narrowing of attention, selectivity, risky choices and seeing colleagues and clients as objects with little consideration (due to decreased capacity) to their needs.
Whereas a person who considers that the cause of their exhaustion is external (down to managerial decisions) and controllable is more likely to voice their concerns to those in control, to try and change the situation. For example, suppose a person considers that the poor allocation of resources to a project is the cause of their exhaustion. In that case, they might speak up and communicate this to their manager, hoping to change the situation.
Global vs Specific
Global (e.g. my behaviour is impacted in all areas or situations in my life) vs specific (e.g. affects my behaviour in only one case) factors.
Peterson and Seligman (1984) created a learned helplessness model that contained two explanatory styles: pessimistic and optimistic. If a person has a pessimistic explanatory style, their explanations of the causes of adverse outcomes are considered stable, global, and internal. Conversely, the causes of positive outcomes are deemed unstable, specific and external.
Conversely, optimistic explanatory styles are characterised by explanations for adverse outcomes due to unstable, specific and external causes. In contrast, positive outcomes are perceived as due to stable, global and internal causes.
An optimistic explanatory style is associated with higher levels of resilience, higher motivation, achievement, physical wellbeing, and lower depressive symptoms (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).
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