Burnout Part 1: How to Tell You are Burnt Out

Burnout Part 1: How to Tell You are Burnt Out

It was like the candle had finally come to the end of its wick and as my wife says, “at the end of the wick there is some dynamite”. One Friday afternoon, negativity bubbling under the surface completely overwhelmed me. The burdens I was carrying crushed me under its weight. My normal level-headed temperament became an out of control roller coaster of mixed emotions and confusion. I was completely unable to function like my usual self. My first response was genuinely the thought, “I think I’m going crazy, I have finally lost my mind!”. But with hindsight I think it’s safe to say I was experiencing burnout.

With the increase of burnout it can seem like an umbrella term to describe being tired from work; however, burnout is not just another word for exhausted. So what is burnout? It occurs when three specific symptoms are present: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment. [1] [2]

How do we recognise the symptoms of burnout?

Emotional exhaustion involves struggling to regulate your emotions. You may find yourself responding to situations in a manner that is an under or overreaction or out of character. Being emotionally drained in its simplest form is finding ourselves “crying over spilt milk”, this response may even surprise you; it also involves being physically fatigued. You may find it hard to get up in the morning and struggle to sleep at night. You could find it difficult to perform everyday tasks and unable to do activities you would normally enjoy such as sport or exercise.

Depersonalisation involves a loss of empathy and a desire to numb and detach from emotions. You can become unphased of the suffering of others and unable to exercise compassion when people share vulnerably with you. People may stop becoming ‘people’ to you and you may disrespectfully refer to certain people as objects. You could feel cynical and distrust the motives of others rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. 

Reduced personal accomplishment involves the predisposition to be overly negative about yourself when it comes to fulfilling your roles and responsibilities. You can become focused on the things that are wrong and unable to acknowledge the things that are going right.

“Burnout occurs when three specific symptoms are present: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment”

What could this mean for you?

If you find yourself experiencing all three symptoms, you may find yourself suffering from burnout. Read this blog about the first steps to recovering from burnout. You might find that you are experiencing just one of these three symptoms, despite it not being all three, would be worth attending to. 

If you’re emotionally exhausted but not experiencing depersonalisation, it could be you are over-extended. Consider how you can reduce your workload, ensuring you are participating in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment. Consider making more time for friends and family. We encourage you to talk to someone you trust and share how you are feeling.

If you’re experiencing depersonalisation but not emotional exhaustion, it could be you are disengaged. Consider if your personal values and your organisation’s values align. Are you experiencing conflict with co-workers that is unresolved? Do you have unresolved trauma that is inhibiting your ability to empathise? 

If you’re experiencing low personal achievement but not emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, it could be you are feeling ineffective. Consider if your job is suited to your passions, gifts and skills. Are you receiving the support and training you need to succeed in your job? 

Some of the symptoms of burnout are also symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses which can influence the necessary treatment for recovery. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms please speak to a healthcare professional, such as your doctor, trained counsellor or psychologist. They can help you clarify your symptoms and determine the best course of action.

[1] www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/news-detail/2018/05/15/burnout
[2] According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The MBI presents a psychological perspective on understading common factors to those who experience burnout.