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“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it, is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water and not get wet.”
This quote from Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen likely hits home for a lot of you, especially if you are in a helping profession. Burnout is most commonly seen in professions such as legal, medical, therapists and social workers, first responders, nurses, and service providers.
And while helping professionals tend to face burnout at higher rates, almost any profession is subjected to potential burnout if certain factors come into play. But what exactly is burnout and how does it affect a person’s work and mental well being?
The terms compassion fatigue and burnout are often used interchangeably and while they share overlapping characteristics, they are different.
Compassion fatigue was first introduced in 1992 by Carla Joinson and in 1995 was defined more precisely as a secondary traumatic reaction similar to vicarious trauma by Charles Figley.
Secondary, or vicarious trauma, are emotional reactions through exposure to trauma via: witnessing the fear and pain of others who have been through a trauma; listening and processing a person’s trauma; reviewing traumatic videos or photos; among others types of exposure. It’s basically experiencing the trauma through the person who had the direct exposure or through other mediums.
The term burnout has been around since 1970 coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. It is considered to be much worse than ordinary fatigue, burnout makes it challenging for people to cope with stress and handle day-to-day responsibilities.
Compassion fatigue is seen as the result of a specific experience whereas burnout is the culmination of exposures combined with other predisposing factors.
A person can experience compassion fatigue under a variety of circumstances - work, the media, supporting a friend. Burnout, on the other hand, is always related back to a person’s job. Burnout tends to be excessive and prolonged; compassion fatigue is often a short term experience though has the potential for turning into burnout if related to work and left unaddressed.
Burnout is not currently categorized as a mental health disorder however the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
Common symptoms when a person is experiencing compassion fatigue are:
If a person is experiencing burnout these symptoms are most likely to be present:
Both, however, can lead to decreased job performance, silent quitting (and then quitting), and physical and mental health decline.
A person doesn’t wake up one day and suddenly is burned-out. They may suddenly feel burned-out but it has been progressing for several weeks to months. Here is a quick look at each stage and how it presents:
When starting a new job or taking on a new task people tend to have excessive drive and ambition. And while ambition is great and something all employers look for - too much of it can lead to… you guessed it, burnout; especially if additional factors come into play.
Ambition pushes you to work harder. So does type-A personality, wanting to please others, and wanting to succeed. Again, these are all wonderful traits to have but too much of it (especially if you are getting nothing in return) is not good for your mental well being.
You first start by neglecting your own needs, sacrificing sleeping, eating, personal time, and self-care. You are reluctant to take time off, even when sick, and work extra hours.
Instead of acknowledging that you’re pushing yourself to the max, you blame your boss, the demands of your job, or colleagues for your troubles. This is called displacement of conflict. And while sometimes your boss and colleagues are a part of the blame - all the blame is placed on others.
You then become your job and have no time for nonwork related activities. Your values are revised as work becomes the sole focus at the expense of family, friends, and hobbies, which now seem irrelevant.
But you can’t possibly be burned out, right? Or are you just in denial? Instead of taking responsibility for your behaviors, you become impatient, you blame others, seeing them as incompetent, lazy, and overbearing.
You then start to withdraw. From work? No. From family and friends. You lack direction and are cynical. Social invitations to parties, movies, and dinner dates start to feel burdensome instead of enjoyable.
Soon your behaviors start to change. You become more aggressive and snap at loved ones and colleagues for no reason. You may become depressed, isolating further.
Depersonalization is also common. Feeling detached from your life and your ability to control your life leads to further negative behaviors and a range of uncomfortable emotions.
Feeling empty or anxious you may turn to thrill seeking behaviors to cope with this emotion, such as substance use, gambling, or overeating. Or the opposite - you continue to withdraw and not engage in any pleasurable activities.
Depression takes hold. Life loses its meaning and you feel hopeless. Depressive symptoms present and you feel like you’re struggling to keep your head above water.
In the end a person may experience mental and physical collapse. This can impact your ability to cope. Mental health or medical attention may be necessary.
This can all sound super scary. As a person who has personally experienced burnout not only is it not fun, sometimes you’re not even seeing it for what it is. You shrug it off and think “oh, this will pass, I've felt this way before.” And then it just kept going and I remember saying things including “I’m not mentally stable enough to do this” and “I hate it here.” When the situation resolved itself, I felt like I could breathe again.
I was able to look back and see how much my personality and attitude had changed. It’s as if I was becoming so disconnected I couldn’t see it when it was happening. So how did I overcome it? How can you? Resolving burnout will look different for everyone, read on to find out more
We already talked about how anyone can experience compassion fatigue and that burnout is similar to compassion fatigue but work with as the necessary driver. But what else factors in? I’m so glad you asked.
COVID-19 also did not help the state of anyone’s mental health and we actually saw an increase in people seeking mental health services during and after the pandemic. There is also a shortage of mental health professionals (thanks burnout) and it’s difficult to find a therapist leaving people to deal with their problems alone.
Professional boundaries have also blurred over the years. As many people started working from home during the pandemic it was difficult to know when work started and ended because we were constantly surrounded by work. Professionals who have always worked from home are skilled at maintaining those boundaries, but for those of us it was new we felt like work never stopped and it was easy to keep working.
With the growth of technology, it’s also incredibly easy to be accessed - emails, text, team chat, google chat. You can’t possibly keep up with all of it, and yet you try to so you’re not seen as an under-performer.
The good thing about burnout is that it doesn’t have to last forever. Once you’ve fully accepted that you’re not just “burning-out” but that you’ve become a dark, crispy, crisp piece of burnt toast, healing can begin.
Of course one of the first things I will recommend is therapy. Talking about what is going on, what you’re experiencing, and how you got burned-out can be incredibly helpful to process as well as to develop strategies to avoid future burnout.
Maintain a healthy life-work balance. This balance will ebb and flow over time - sometimes work demands are higher and other times life takes precedent. And while you’re setting boundaries at work, do so at home. If you live with others, making sure responsibilities are fairly distributed is important; it may feel like one hell of a group project but one person shouldn’t carry the entire burden of keeping a household.
And if you live by yourself (let’s normalize that for a sec) spreading out household needs may work better than trying to get them all done in one day especially when I’m certain there are other things you’d rather be doing. Balancing, and re-balance, and re-balancing is key.
“No.” Really, that’s it. Learning to say “no.” Especially if you’re the person that the boss is always going to because you always say yes, and get it done, and do great work. You can not do it all. And also, while you’re getting more work and getting it all done timely what exactly are you getting out of it? More paid time off? Ability to leave early/come in late? Increase in pay? Right…that’s what I thought. The answer is “no”, just like yours should be. Now don’t become the “no” person.
Just know your limits and what you can and can’t handle. I’ll never forget the one time I told a boss some semblance of “To be honest, I don’t think I should do that. It’s not part of my role here and I wouldn’t be comfortable with doing it. I’m sorry, but I have to say no.” I’ve done this in another situation where a boss wanted me to do something that I was perfectly capable of doing but was out of my scope of work and something I really, really did not enjoy doing.
I was very transparent about this and they completely understood and respected this. On the opposite side of the coin, one time I told a supervisor that if X happened I would need support with next steps and was not able to address on my own due to where I was emotionally; and yet I was forced to “step up and be a professional.”
Know what gives you energy and what drains it - professionally and personally. If you know you’re facing a draining task - schedule more breaks, schedule a coping skill for the end of the day, make sure you’re eating, and communicate to your boss if you start to struggle. Talking to your boss if you feel you are burning out is important.
Hopefully they have strategies to help you, and ideally one of these is an Employee Assistance Program. If they don’t mention it, ask or utilize HR. Also be mindful of your physical health, mental and physical health can impact one another. Keeping up a steady diet and healthy sleep routine is important.
If it comes to it, you may need to leave. I know this isn’t always practical or plausible, but it may become necessary. You don’t need to love every aspect of your job, but it needs to be exciting enough that you don’t dread getting out of bed every morning.
If you're exhausted, feeling negative toward your work and struggling to perform - AND it's impacting your social life, you may need to consider a job change. With 94% of people saying they work over 50 hrs a week it’s safe to say we spend A LOT of time at work making it important that you at least genuinely like what you do.
I can’t express how important it is to practice self-care. And this can be done at work too. Breaks are necessary. Try not to work through the entire day. And on those breaks there are simple self-care things you can do - read, journal, go for a walk, call a friend… simple, easy, quick. And outside of work (because there is an outside of work) continue to enjoy life and do the things you enjoy.
Compassion fatigue and burnout are just two of the unfortunate aspects of adulting. Both are very real experiences and can have a total impact on a person. When it comes to burnout specifically, it’s important we are able to acknowledge when we are struggling at work and rebalance that work-life balance throughout our careers. You can still be a star employee while taking care of and prioritizing the one thing in life that is most important… you.
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