How to recognise burn-out

Burn-out is a stress-related condition. In itself, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of adrenalin can make you perform at your best when a deadline is in sight, or when something is expected of you. But when you remain under stress for a longer time, the same substances (like the adrenalin) that kept you sharp at first, now start wearing you out.

Stress is meant to be the exception, meant to help you survive in life-threatening situations. Nowadays, however, it has become rather the rule. Constant pressure at work, lots of travel, checking your messages 24/7, it all keeps your stress system activated.

This long-term stress has physical effects, like loss of sleep or concentration problems, but also psychological effects. The more stressed you get, the more negatively you interpret what happens to you. This leads to more stress - the start of a vicious circle.

The burn-out funnel

The trouble is that you can't really trust your own judgment when you're under too much stress. Your mind will tell you to focus on the urgent stuff, the to-do's. It will also tell you that there is no time to take some rest - no time to waste.

So you frantically try to stay on top of things, always running faster and skipping the things that actually relax and nourish you, because these seem optional.

Seen from the "stressed perspective" it seems logical what you're doing: you're trying to deal with the problem. But in reality you are depleting your physical and mental resources, making you ever more tired. Soon, you may get irritable, lose your concentration, sleep less well, feel drained and eventually exhausted.

This is what is called the "burn-out funnel", and the lower you get in that funnel, the more difficult is becomes to get out of it again. Maybe take a moment to reflect where you are in the funnel?

Burn-out symptoms

The name burn-out suggests what happens: the flame loses its flicker until it is completely extinguished. Very common symptoms of being "burnt out" are loss of interest, loss of energy, cynicism, feeling exhausted by change instead of challenged, feeling powerless, ...

Christina Maslach, one of the leading researchers on burn-out, has identified 3 key factors in burn-out:

  • Emotional exhaustion:  feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one's work;
  • Depersonalization: an unfeeling and impersonal response toward others;
  • Personal accomplishment: lack of feelings of competence and successful achievement in one's work.

Do you recognise some of these symptoms?

Who is most vulnerable to burn-out?

The chances of developing burn-out are closely linked to the psychological dimension of emotional stability, also called "neuroticism". This is one of the so-called "Big Five" dimensions that are used in psychology to describe personality. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety or anger.

People who score high on this dimension, will be more prone to stress, as they are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and view minor frustrations as very difficult to deal with.

The mix becomes really toxic when you combine this with a compulsion to prove yourself, and the tendency to work harder under stress and neglect personal needs.

This is essentially what perfectionists do: viewing details out of proportion and always working harder to avoid failure. But of course the bitter irony is that this strategy often leads to feeling so exhausted that you do end up failing.

A sad fact also is that burn-out tends to happen mostly to people who like their job and take it seriously, who are motivated to make the best of it. Because it's these people, even more so if they have perfectionistic tendencies, that will go "the extra mile", until they collapse...

If you recognise yourself in this profile, it's crucial to learn to see these patterns, and to learn to step out of them. It's not easy to do that by yourself, because these patterns are a bit like lenses you are looking through - you are not always aware that you're looking through a specific lens, you just assume that how you see things, is reality.

A mindfulness course is a great way of getting more insight into your own patterns, and will also give you tools to approach work (and life) differently.