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We’re all exhausted but are you experiencing burnout?

With more than half of Australia in lockdown throughout the latter part of 2021 and many of the social support systems we rely on having been put on hold, it’s no wonder people are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. For some, such feelings may ultimately culminate in burnout.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, burnout was, for the most part, considered a work-related issue. But in our research in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, we have identified burnout in people outside of the workplace, including those who are dealing with other life stressors, such as caring for loved ones full-time day after day.

Now, due to the pandemic, rates of burnout appear to be rising, especially since research from the Australian Institute of Health and Safety says working from home has skewed the work life balance—workers are often required to “do more with less” and be online and available 24/7, as well as home-school children. Job stress and long hours are increasingly intermingling with everyday social interaction. Our research into burnout—to determine how to best identify and manage it—is outlined in the book Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recover and is summarised here.

What is burnout?

The most widely used burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), defines it by three criteria:

• Exhaustion

• Loss of empathy towards service recipients/cynicism towards one’s job

• Reduced professional accomplishment.

But the MBI has been widely critiqued. One concern is it overlooks key symptoms that are prominent in burnout and may be especially debilitating, such as cognitive dysfunction (which might include forgetting things or not being able to concentrate).

Another concern is it was derived solely from researching burnout in those who work directly with patients and clients, such as those in caring professions. Nuances of burnout that occur in other contexts may have been overlooked.


The Sydney Burnout Measure

In our studies, we asked more than 1000 participants who said they’d experienced burnout to report their main symptoms. They worked across a range of contexts, from paid employment positions to more “informal” work positions such as caring for elderly parents and/or children.

We found the syndrome comprised of not just exhaustion, but also cognitive dysfunction, withdrawal and disconnection from the world and those around you, and reduced work performance (whether in paid work or in tasks at home), commonly accompanied by depression, anxiety and insomnia.

These symptoms we collated into our own measure—the Sydney Burnout Measure (SBM). The SBM is a checklist of 34 burnout symptoms, with a high score indicating you might have burnout. But it’s also possible to get a high score because of other underlying conditions that share several of burnout’s symptoms, such as depression. To assess for this possibility, approaching a GP or mental health professional may be necessary.

These professionals will use their clinical experience to assess whether the symptoms you have are likely due to burnout, or some other mental health condition—as different psychological conditions often require disorder-specific treatment strategies.

Addressing the external stressor

Once you know you have burnout, what can you do about it?

First, the causes of your burnout need to be identified, so you can work to reduce their impact.

External causes of burnout can come from your workplace (being overloaded, overlooked for a promotion, working overtime) or from home (caring for multiple children and/or elderly parents, being primarily responsible for domestic duties).

A combination of both factors could be at play, especially during lockdown, where many are juggling working-from-home demands, financial difficulties and home-schooling children.

Seeking resolution from your boss may be useful in overcoming some job burnout. Can they extend deadlines or arrange flexible working hours around your child-rearing responsibilities?

For factors in the home, asking family members to assist in juggling tasks or researching whether some tasks can be outsourced (for example, can you hire a cleaner or a babysitter once a week?) may be of use in helping with burnout recovery.

Applying de-stressing strategies

When escaping these stressors isn’t possible, you may have to bring on some de-stressing strategies to help curb your burnout symptoms. Things like exercise, meditation and practising mindfulness are consistently nominated by our study participants as most helpful.

Research in Health Psychology Review says such practices not only help distract and relax you, but also have proven biological benefits, such as reducing levels of stress hormones throughout the body.

Consulting a mental health professional can also be useful, as they will have specific cognitive strategies to help reduce anxiety and stress.

Addressing a predisposing factor: perfectionism

While stressors at work or home may set the wheels of burnout in motion, our analyses indicated burnout may also develop as a result of predisposing personality traits, especially perfectionism.

People with perfectionistic traits are usually excellent workers, as they’re extremely reliable and conscientious. However, they’re also prone to burnout as they set unrealistic and unrelenting standards for their own performance, which are ultimately impossible to live up to.

Managing burnout requires not only addressing stressors and employing de-stressing strategies, but also tweaking any predisposing personality style. Several strategies can assist in modifying perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours. For example, learning to focus more on the “big picture” rather than the finer details can help prevent procrastination—a common consequence of perfectionism.

So, when starting a task, approach it with the goal of getting it done (no matter the quality) rather than ensuring it’s perfect from the get-go. You can go back and fix it later.

Learning to avoid black and white thinking (“If this goes wrong, I’ll definitely lose my job”) is another important strategy. Consider instead the shades of grey (“If this goes wrong, I can try to approach it from another angle”).

A mental health professional may also be of assistance here, as they can offer cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), that helps people notice and modify unhelpful thinking patterns that are common in perfectionism and make them prone to stress and anxiety.

Identifying burnout and its key contributors is crucial. Only then can management strategies be applied.

Gabriela Tavella is a research officer at the University of NSW School of Psychiatry. Gordon Parker is a Scientia professor at UNSW. Their book, Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery, co-authored by Kerrie Eyers, is published by Allen & Unwin. This article first appeared on The Conversation website and is reprinted under a Creative Commons licence.

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