Part one of a three-part series, this first article discusses what burnout actually is and how it happens. The second article focuses on how to escape burnout, and the third, how to prevent it.
Let’s get started with part one: What burnout is and how it happens.
Similar to the word ‘migraine’ being used to describe a simple headache, ‘burnout’ is often used to reference a period of prolonged fatigue. But just as any migraine sufferer will tell you that migraine is much more than a headache, anyone who has lived through burnout will tell you that it’s far more than simple fatigue.
The term ‘burnout’ was first used in the early 1970s by the American-German Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He defined it as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life. Later, Christina Maslach defined burnout as a psychological syndrome involving emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.
Google ‘burnout’ and you’ll find any number of clinical and non-clinical definitions. All variations on a theme.
Having lived through burnout, I have my own definition. Perhaps not surprisingly, my version is more raw and woody than it is antiseptic. I define it as the progressive erosion of personal values leading to a perpetual state of a life devoid of pleasure. The result is a loss of energy, enthusiasm, confidence, and self-worth, with a corresponding decline in mental and physical health and well-being.
Irrespective of the definition you choose to adopt, the cost of burnout is undisputed. Burnout comes with hefty emotional, physical, psychological, familial, organizational, and societal price tags.
So what exactly is burnout?
Burnout is the body’s response to prolonged periods of stress. Stress, per se, is actually good for us. When the stress response is activated, we become more alert, stronger, energetic, and enthusiastic. However, when the stress response is repeatedly activated over a long period of time, things start to go wrong.
Let’s begin with the amygdala. This incredible part of the brain has one job to do; to keep you alive. When the stress response is triggered, it’s the amygdala that starts the ball rolling. Even though you may not realize it, you’ll be very familiar with the work of your amygdala. When triggered by a stressor, your amygdala jumps into action. It prompts the release of cortisol and adrenaline – the stress hormones. Adrenaline causes an increase in your heart-rate and breathing. And cortisol increases the amount of glucose available in your blood-stream and triggers your brain to use glucose more efficiently. Now you’re able to flee the sabre-tooth tiger or fight for your life, should you need to. This is the classic ‘flight or fight’ response and it can be extremely effective in keeping you alert, safe, and sharp.
Other parts of your brain – the Medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) being the main one – are responsible for keeping the amygdala in check. When the amygdala perceives a threat, the mPFC quickly processes information to determine if that threat is, in fact, an immediate threat to life. If not, the mPFC sends a message to the amygdala telling it to ‘calm down’ and quickly, status quo resumes. In burnout, however, this process goes ‘off the rails’ and simply put, the mPFC starts to agree with the amygdala. The amygdala perceives every threat as potentially life-ending, and so it always responds in the same way. Without the rationalizing effect of the mPFC, your body’s stress response goes into over-drive as your brain perceives every stressor as life-threatening.
The stress response is primitive. When used to your advantage, it can be hugely beneficial. But when the stress response is repeatedly triggered, your ability to modulate the response is impaired and your amygdala can end up running the show!
Initially this can result in anxiety, loss of appetite, insomnia and an inclination towards a ‘freeze’ response to stress rather than flight or fight. Productivity starts to decline as cognitive and physical function decrease. Over time, the body’s ability to deliver constant streams of adrenaline and cortisol into the blood is severely impaired and you’ll start to experience the symptoms of burnout.
Exhaustion after exercising (instead of the usual ‘high’)
Forget things easily – even things you do routinely
Inability to recall information
Impaired concentration and focus
Inability to process information
Inability to function at home
Decreased self-confidence (specifically, belief in being able to achieve)
As this list shows, burnout is insidious. Nothing is left untouched. Imagine it like a line of dominos. When you nudge the first one, the rest fall sequentially. The same can be said for burnout. Wherever it originates, it will quickly impact all other areas of your life.
Previously attributed to overwork and self-sacrifice, burnout has long been reserved for those in the caring and healing professions. However, in this modern era burnout is far less selective. People from all walks of life and across all professions can and do experience burnout. Cited as being responsible for up to half of all employee attrition in the United States, burnout is no longer the domain of carers and healers. CEOs, sales people, stay-at-home Moms, sportsmen and women, students, teachers, the list goes on, are all susceptible.
Burnout has become an equal opportunity condition.
In the next of this three-article series, I’ll discuss how to escape burnout and how to bounce back in ways you may never have considered.
Tina Cantrill RN, MBA, CPC
Tina Cantrill is a coach and trainer for burned out healthcare professionals. She teaches them how to lead, and how to take care of themselves first, so that they can love their work again.