In a world where it seems as though the pressure to perform is always on, more and more people are admitting to burnout at work. What is this phenomenon, and how can you cope with it if it happens to you? 

What does burnout feel like, and how can you cope with it?

In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognizedTrusted Source burnout as an "occupational phenomenon."

Their decision came after years of hearing people talk about it, trying understand why it affected them, and attempting to identify what they could have done to cope with it.

Recently, a Gallup study of around 7,500 full time workers found that 23% were often in "burnout mode." About 44% "sometimes" entered a burnout mode.

According to the researchers, some of the occupations most at risk of burnout are linked to professions that encounter high levels of stress, including healthcare, social work, police work, teaching, and customer services. Other professionals who have reported high levels of burnout include lawyers and academics.

So, what is burnout, and how is it different from other forms of occupational stress? If a person does experience burnout, how can they cope with it in the moment, and how can they learn to overcome it with time?

What is burnout?

For years, academics and mental health professionals alike have been working to put together a definition of burnout based on the most common causes and symptoms.

"In a nutshell, [burnout] is a syndrome brought on from chronic workplace stress that hasn't been successfully managed," explained Kat Hounsell.

Hounsell is the founder of everyday people, an organization (based in the United Kingdom) that offers leadership development, well-being coaching workshops, and mental health first aid training.

"[It] can include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or negative/cynical feelings related to one's job — including reduced belief that [the person is] capable of doing the job and producing good results," she continued.

"Burnout can be defined as the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long term, unresolved stress," agreed business neurolinguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer Tania Diggory.

Diggory is also the founder and director of Calmer, which supports entrepreneurs and professional teams with mental health and well-being training.

However, burnout is not simply work related stress; a moderate amount of stress at work can even have positive outcomes. So what's the difference?

The difference between stress and burnout

Some studies have shown that stress can help boost a person's motivation, improving their mental performance in the short run. This was the conclusion of a study from the University of California, Berkeley, led by Elizabeth Kirby, who is now an assistant professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.

"Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance," says Kirby.

There is nothing positive about burnout, Diggory told Medical News Today. "The difference between burnout and work related stress is the point at which it becomes a serious health issue," she explained.

"Stress is something we all go through and there are different degrees of stress [...]. However, studies have shown that ongoing, high levels of cortisol — the primary stress hormone — are not good for our well-being," Diggory said.

"When stress starts to build over a period of time and we experience symptoms of anxiety or low moods," she added, "this can lead to chronic stress and our cognitive skills can become impaired. By this, I mean that our working memory, our ability to think logically and carry out tasks effectively isn't as sharp as it usually is."

"High volumes of stress over a long period of time can lead to exhaustion and, therefore, burnout."

Why does burnout occur?

Being under constant pressure to achieve, with few opportunities to take real breaks from work, can add to a person's levels of stress. This can make them feel overwhelmed and more likely to reach the burnout stage.

Too intense a workload, paired with a toxic work environment and other sources of stress, can lead to burnout. But aside from an overwhelming workload, other factors can also contribute to stress levels and lead to burnout.

For one person who spoke to MNT, these factors included financial stress, as well as instances of workplace bullying.

Douglas, who used to work a public-facing job in a healthcare environment, mentioned that his relationship with his managers also increased his risk of burnout.

"I think it was a mixture of unachievable targets and often having to deliver bad news to people as part of the job [that led me to burnout]. My managers did not deal with stress well either, which often had a knock-on effect to the rest of the team," he told MNT.

Indeed, many of the people we spoke with explained that the example set by higher-ups and peers — who worked to exhaustion and did not put any time aside for mental or physical recovery — was an important contributing factor to engaging in behaviors that led to burnout and not recognizing this experience for what it was.

"I found it really hard to tell that I was experiencing burnout [when] I was, and when people told me that I was, I didn't believe them," said Sam. He entered burnout mode while juggling a full time postgraduate degree and a job in order to make ends meet.

"I'm thinking about the shared misery of working on a Saturday, past midnight, or posting photos on social media accounts [showing] that you're working on the beach although you should be on holiday. That sort of pressure, I think, really gets in your head," he added.

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