Recognising Burnout

Aug 2, 2021 | Blog Articles

Daily life can be exhausting even if you’re not living through Covid lockdowns. So, when do those feelings of exhaustion become more serious, and you become burnt out?

This blog is the first in a series on burnout. Taken from a conversation on ABC’s Life Matters with Gordon Parker AO.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of burnout is “Chronic workplace stress not successfully managed”. But Gordon Parker argues that it goes further than that. He is Scientia Professor of Psychiatry at UNSW, founder of the Black Dog Institute and Board Director for Quest for Life.

Gordon says, “there has been a burnout pandemic over the last 10 to 20 years with data suggesting that 30% of people in the workforce will develop burnout. In some professions, the rates are extremely high. For instance, for doctors, data suggests that about 30% at any one time and about 60% over their lifetime, will develop burnout. With the hectic pace of life and general work pressures increasingly means doctors are required to work 24/7.

Potentially, people could be living through the normal burnout that goes along with their profession and with burnout brought on by the Covid pandemic.

Covid is driving higher rates of burnout in 2 groups in particular:

  • people working on the front line in hospitals and demanding circumstances
  • people looking after children at home, home-schooling and also having to maintain a job. Or perhaps looking after elderly parents with limitations – also called the ‘sandwich situation’.”

Covid is driving higher rates of burnout

One interesting aspect of Gordon’s research into burnout is that it is not just experienced by stereotypical corporate professions but by caring roles as well.

“Basically, burnout is more likely to be experienced by ‘good’ people – that is people who are reliable, dutiful or caring and often perfectionistic because predictably, they put in longer hours, they feel guilty if they’re not meeting needs – stated or unstated. People in caring professions, whether they’re health professionals, teachers, vets, and the clergy in particular, seem to be overrepresented groups. But also those who are caring for relatives.”

It’s sad because these are the groups of people most needed when other people are in crisis.”

The link between Perfectionism and Burnout

“An interesting point is the link between perfectionism and burnout, which is not just an assertion but a measurable fact.

There are a few overrepresented personality styles, but reliability and perfectionism is the most distinct one.”

— Our next blog will look at traits of perfectionism.

The physical impact of burnout

“Burnout effects are not just emotional – the impact can also be physical. The syndrome of burnout is far broader than described by WHO.

Key symptoms are:

  • to be exhausted
  • to have cognitive impairment, meaning your memory is compromised eg when you read, you tend to scan rather than take things in.
  • loss of empathy
  • loss of joy
  • poor sleep
  • anxiety symptoms
  • depressive symptoms
  • irritability symptoms
  • physical symptoms sometimes, such as collapsing or incontinence.

For example, Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, when she developed burnout, she actually fell to the ground and hit her head.

Some people with severe burnout get admitted to hospital and doctors have no idea what’s going on. This can add to people’s stress, when they go to hospital and the doctors say ‘we’ve done all the tests and still don’t know what’s going on. You do have high cortisol but beyond that there’s nothing we can treat you for’.

Burnout is a syndrome

When somebody presents with certain features, it’s common to get a diagnosis of depression or other psychological condition than burnout.

It’s important to ensure people who have the syndrome and health professionals are made more aware of the symptoms. That way burnout can be differentiated from other conditions such as depression.”

How Quest for Life can help

Quest for Life can also help you through our short and longer Virtual Programs and 5-day residential program, Healing Your Life. By learning strategies and techniques to manage your response to life’s events and ways to calm an anxious mind, you can regain control of your life and move towards peace of mind. We wish you well in managing your challenges whatever they may be at this time.

Peace in Practice is a 4-hour virtual dynamic program designed to increase the compassion, skill, resilience and knowledge of health professionals working in private practice or in public settings. CPE Points available.

Wellbeing resources

Wellbeing books Including Your Life Matters by Petrea King – a guidebook for life
Meditation CDs and MP3s including Be Calm, Sleep, Learning to Meditate