What is burnout?

Burnout is associated with chronic work-related stress. According to international guidelines, burnout consists of

1. a feeling of exhaustion,

2. an increasing mental distance or negative attitude to one’s own job (also referred to as “cynicism’ or “depersonalisation”) and

3. reduced professional ability.

Exhaustion refers to a state of feeling drained and physically overwhelmed; low energy levels and depressed mood. The state of depersonalisation is characterised by lack of any attachment to one’s job, withdrawal and lack of motivation. Reduced professional ability is often due to loss of self-confidence or the lack of motivation in general.

Exhaustion refers to the feelings of being emotionally drained and physically overextended; energy is lacking and mood is low. Cynicism characterizes a distant and callous attitude toward one’s job; the individual is de-motivated and withdraws from his/her work. Lastly, lack of professional efficacy includes feelings of inadequacy and incompetence associated with loss of self-confidence.

There are two main approaches when diagnosing and working with burnout . One is dimensional: the patient is situated on a continuum. In other words, to what degree do they feel burnt out. The other approach is categorical: whether burnout is present or not, especially relevant when a specialist must decide whether one needs sick leave or not. Burnout is referred to as clinical when it is at its final stage and is most severe.

Depression – burnout relationship

To some extent, depression and burnout are very similar in nature. Tiredness, fatigue, loss of motivation, feeling more irritable than usual, loss of sleep – there is a long list of overlapping symptoms. However, there are also a few important distinctions. Burnout is specifically referred to as a work-related stress condition. One may feel terribly unmotivated and stressed at work, but have no issues in their family life: this condition wouldn’t necessarily infiltrate all domains of life. Depression, however, “invades” all aspects of a person’s life. Family life suffers, work performance suffers, the personal feeling of self-worth suffers as well. There is no specific situation or place needed to “trigger” depression: it is a constant state.

That being said, in the scientific world researchers are still struggling to reach a consensus whether both states are completely different entities, or burnout is merely a subtype of depression. For instance, is burnout a stage in depression development, or is existing depression negatively influencing work, thus generating burnout? Truth is, there are studies supporting both hypotheses .

Exactly because of such vast overlapping, it is worth discussing burnout when discussing depression, as well as the relationship between work and depression in general.

Work and depression

The relationship between work and depression is a subject of a lot of research. Its importance is beyond the realm of psychology and medicine, as it is becoming an economic issue as well. Depression symptoms are related to work absences and impaired work performance , thus leading to lower productivity and are a potentially avoidable burden on the health system. Some people are lucky to have found a friendly work environment and a profession they are passionate about. They have made friends and can count on somebody’s support. They don’t dread every monday and feel motivated to work hard. Chances are, this hypothetical work scenery would be much more accommodating to an employee who suffers from depression.

However, in reality, people compromise a lot in regards to their work. Financial stability often calls for a choice between passion and a steady income, friendly environment or an extra zero on their paycheck, reasonable work hours or credit card debt. Some professions are highly demanding in themselves: healthcare workers, police officers, stock brokers, lawyers, etc. There are plenty of scenarios where a worker suffering from depression will not have the necessary support from their boss or HR. That is why burnout and depression are complicated issues to deal with in the workplace.

An interesting study on the work atmosphere and its relation to depression suggests that low social capital at work (atmosphere of no communication, trust, friendliness, etc) is a strong predictor of depression. As much as a minimum of 20% higher probability that one would be diagnosed with depression, if they report lower social capital score.

How about people who’ve recovered from a depressive episode and go back into the workforce? According to some research , women and older patients needed longer time to return to work. People in a management position and people with a strong support group would return to work faster. Interestingly, severity of depression was not a predictor for the time to return. However, health related quality of life was a significant predictor to going back to work faster.

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The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout

Every characteristic of burnout, mentioned above, may present itself with different symptoms. It is, of course, best to be able to recognise them quickly, as the path from stress to burnout is pretty straight-forward, figuratively speaking. Please see below some of the main characteristics of burnout.

➢ declined cognitive abilities: you forget things, can’t concentrate or pay attention;
➢ sleep disturbances: can’t fall asleep, wake up early or need more sleep than usual and wake up tired;
➢ changes in appetite: loss of appetite or feeling always hungry;
➢ physical symptoms and changes in general health: constant stress is harmful to the immune system, therefore people are more prone to infections, cold, flu-like conditions, allergies, etc. Also, changes in heart rate, breathing, shakiness, dizziness, chest pain, fatigue are also signals for general exhaustion.
➢ mood changes: sudden waves of anxiety, sadness, irritability, anger.

Cynicism (an increasing mental distance or negative attitude to one’s own job)
➢ avoiding social situations: sudden change of work social contact: gradually avoiding coworkers more; skipping lunch, social events, closing the door, feeling waves of strong emotion when communicating (sudden unexplained anger towards a colleague); general detachment from work: feeling disconnected and apathetic.
➢ general bad mood and attitude towards your job: gradually seeing the worse in every situation, feeling of pointless being, no motivation to show up on time or take up new projects.

Reduced professional ability:
Work performance has changed for the worst, no productivity; a feeling that work is piling up and there’s no end to it; can’t seem to find energy and solutions for tasks that were easily performed before.
Coping with burnout at the workplace
Having a major depressive episode or struggling with burnout is extremely demanding. It is one thing doing that at home, and a completely different story when pushing through another day in the office. A lot of people are giving their best, while in the middle of a depressive episode, struggling to focus and keep up at work. Often depression stays untreated, which could lead to no adequate rest and worsening of symptoms. Please see below some tips on how to cope with burnout at the workplace.

Seek professional help. Visit your family doctor and talk to them about your condition. They might refer you to a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist. Depression is treatable and burnout might be a stepping stone to depression. Do not underestimate your symptoms.

Plan ahead. For future situations when you are aware that you are about to have an episode or are feeling particularly down, find a place at work to go and sit in peace, take a few breaths. Always save a few vacation days saved for emergencies. Talk to a colleague you trust and explain your situation, so they can support you in the future.

Take care of your general health. Diet, exercise, sleep: all of high importance to psychological health. Make sure to have enough sleep and movement in your day to day life. It might seem overwhelming to motivate oneself to change bad habits in the midst of depression, but this is a question of prioritizing. Health is a higher priority than any deadline or job. Stable physical or psychological health give the opportunity to be flexible and enduring and face the high demands of the world.

Make time for the things/people you love. Often people get stuck in a rut. Days look the same, work is boring, demanding and working overtime is a way of life. If you have a hobby you’ve lost touch with, goals you have forgotten, you might revisit. Maybe you painted as a kid, played an instrument, love hiking, always wanted to learn to ski or read more books? It would be nice to have a non-work related goal or hobby (save money to travel next year, learn to … , go snowboarding with friends in winter, etc). Prioritizing to see your friends, to socialize or to workout is not a sign of selfishness or weakness. It is taking active care for your own wellbeing.

Don’t be afraid to change. You could try and entertain the thought of change. What would you like to do, where would you like to be, what are your skills, do you need to upgrade some of your skills or acquire new ones to have a better chance? Maybe if you don’t like your current job and feel unmotivated you could change the perspective of how you see it. From “just a job” to a “stepping stone” towards a better one in the future.

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