What is burnout?
While burnout is not officially recognized as a diagnosable mental illness, recent research (Koutsimani, 2019) suggests that even though it’s often associated with anxiety and depression, it appears to be a robust and stand-alone construct. The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a feeling of intense fatigue, loss of control, and an inability to produce concrete results at work.”
Another definition indicates burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” It’s always associated with work, and while it was initially reserved for those in caring roles (nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers), we now know that all workers can be exposed to burnout.
Folks with burnout will often meet the criteria for depression and/or anxiety, and some will even meet the criteria for PTSD. In my case, I met the criteria for all three. But with the context of work removed or the organizational issues remedied, most folks will recover.
Burnout Risk Factors & Facts
- No one is immune to burnout, and it equally affects men and women.
- No age group appears to be at higher risk than another.
- 1 in 4 Canadian workers report being stressed, 60% of these say that work is the source of their stress.
- There is no clear understanding of exactly what conditions lead to burnout, except that all workers who experience burnout have been experiencing chronic stress, and it arises out of workplace factors as well as personal factors.
- Burnout is more than an individual issue, and research shows that a combination of individual and systemic factors lead to burnout.
- Organizational risk factors include: work overload, lack of autonomy, inability for individuals to participate in decisions that impact their work, an imbalance between perceived efforts made and the recognition received (salary, esteem, respect, etc.), poorly defined responsibilities, insufficient communication, ambiguous roles, unhealthy atmosphere, difficult schedules.
- Individual factors that put someone at higher risk of burnout include: having high expectations of oneself, making work the sole focus of one’s life, perfectionistic perspectives, having a heightened professional conscience, not knowing how to delegate, personal factors such as family responsibilities or loneliness.
Burnout and the National Psychological Safety Standard
The National Psychological Safety Standard (The Standard) defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as “a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.” (National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ9700- 803/2013)
The Standard outlines 13 risk factors for psychological safety at work:
- Organizational Culture: Employees hold common norms, values, beliefs, meanings, and expectations. They are then used as behavioural and problem-solving cues.
- Psychological and Social Support: Approaches, services and benefits addressing worker mental health.
- Clear Leadership and Expectations: Workers know what they are expected to do through effective leadership; changes are shared in a timely manner; helpful feedback is provided on expected and actual performance; and the organizations provide clear, effective communication.
- Civility and Respect: People treat each other fairly and with respect.
- Psychological Demands: There is a good fit between employees’ interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position they hold.
- Growth and Development: Workers receive encouragement and support in the development of their interpersonal, emotional, and job skills.
- Recognition and Reward: Immediate supervisor appreciates work; staff are paid fairly for work done; accomplishments are celebrated; and, worker’s commitment and passion for their work is valued.
- Involvement and Influence: Workers are included in discussions about how their work is done and involved in important decisions that impact their role.
- Workload Management: Assigned responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.
- Engagement: Workers enjoy their job and are proud to be a part of the success of the organization.
- Balance: A work environment where there is acceptance of the need for a sense of harmony between the demands of personal life, family, and work.
- Psychological Protection: The organization deals effectively with situations that can threaten or harm workers (including bullying and harassment).
- Protection of Physical Safety: Worker’s psychological and physical safety is protected from hazards and risks related to the work’s physical work environment.
A lack of effective risk mitigation strategies and psychological safety-enhancing strategies across most of the above factors can contribute to burnout risks. In particular: clear leadership and expectations, psychological demands, growth and development, recognition and reward, involvement and influence, workload management and balance are some of the most likely areas of organizational risk associated with burnout.
Preventing and Recovering from Burnout
Burnout does not happen overnight. It is insidious and creeps in over time. Symptoms that may arise include: fatigue, pain, digestive problems, stomach ulcers, skin problems, disrupted sleep, weight loss or gain, frequent illnesses, constant loss of motivation with regard to work, detachment from work, pronounced irritability, spontaneous anger, feelings of incompetence, inefficiency and exhaustion, a desire to isolate oneself, a feeling of failure, a drop in self-confidence, anxiety, worry, insecurity, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory, difficulty in using good judgement, indecision, confusion, and in the most serious cases, suicidal thoughts.
From a prevention perspective, it’s important to notice the flags and risks of burnout to mitigate them in yourself:
- Pay attention to changes, such as sleep disturbances or increased irritability
- When you notice flags, pause and reflect on what has become out of balance for you and implement strategies to get back on track:
- good sleep hygiene
- healthy nutrition
- activities outside of work that bring you joy
- If you are noticing systemic issues contributing to your burnout (i.e., unreasonable workload), talk with your leader early on to seek support in prioritizing and managing workload. Ask about mentorship or coaching opportunities.
- Take breaks – leave your workspace and change your environment during a break.
- Set boundaries – do this with emails and phone calls outside of work hours.
Recovering from Burnout
From a recovery perspective, it’s important to navigate to resources for support:
- Seek support from a qualified psychotherapist (counsellor or psychologist) to help you recover and realign.
- Find out about your work’s supports such as Employee Family Assistance Programs and Disability Management supports.
- Understand your extended health benefits and utilize them.
- Talk with your doctor about your burnout, and participate in medical interventions as needed.
- Take time away or reduce your work schedule, if possible and/or needed.
- Gradually return to work if you take a leave, and implement your new strategies to manage your health and wellness at work in a balanced way.
- Understand that burnout is something that happened to you, not something you did, and recovery is within your power to achieve.
- If you need to, and are able, consider changing jobs or companies if you are not supported to being healthy and well while at work.
Read Darby’s personal experience with burnout here.
Darby is a CBT Therapist and a certified Psychological Health & Safety (PH&S) Advisor with Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates and MyWorkplaceHealth. She has extensive experience in disability management, vocational rehabilitation, workplace wellness, and civility and respect at work. Check out her full bio here and reach out through our contact page or our Clinical Coordinator at email@example.com for more information or to book an appointment.
Koutsami, P., Montgomery, A., Georganta, K. (2019) The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Systematic Review, 10, Article 284.
Optima Global Health (2013). Reference Document: Burnout. SSQ Financial Group. Retrieved from: https://ssq.ca/sites/default/files/archives/ac/Chroniques_sante/Burnout.pdf
World Health Organization (2020) Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
Burnout is discussed as an inevitable part of working in a helping profession, but is it a necessary part of doing meaningful work?
Do you know someone working themselves so hard it may be damaging their health? Here are 5 things to consider when helping someone who is a workaholic.