What is burnout and how can you manage it?

Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2024
Family Medicine

How do you feel after a long day of work?

Let’s say you’re a resident physician working at the hospital. Six days a week, you wake up at 6 a.m. to be in the hospital at 7 a.m. Your time is squeezed between rounding on patients in the morning, preparing assessments and plans for patients, and organizing and submitting progress notes, orders and consults. By the time you leave around 6 p.m., grab dinner and make it home around 7 p.m., you’re left with a couple of hours of “free” time before it’s time to go to back to sleep.  

What does that time at home feel like? Do you ever feel overcome by a wave of exhaustion? A not-so-faint sense of disdain towards your job? A numbing feeling that, despite coming off a full workday, you haven’t accomplished much? A gnawing dread that you will have to start the cycle all over again in less than 12 hours? 

It sounds like you might be burned out. 

What exactly is burnout?

The World Health Organization classifies burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout is not just a workplace phenomenon and can manifest itself in other areas (such as parenting, caretaking and relationships). However, in the workplace setting, it is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional productivity.

Risk factors for burnout

In job environments with heavy workloads and long working hours, individuals can feel a loss of control over their schedules and work responsibilities. They may feel overwhelmed keeping up with all the tasks required of them, and this feeling can be exacerbated by perceptions of a lack of support from colleagues and/or management. It can also be increasingly hard for individuals to establish a work-life balance as they take on increasingly heavy workloads.

Burnout effects on job performance

Burnout has broad-reaching effects on job performance and productivity. When employees are burned out, they are no longer working at their optimal level of performance, and they are more likely to make mistakes. Burned-out employees are also more likely to have antagonistic interactions with peers. 

When workers grow apathetic towards their jobs, they are less invested in the work they do. This can manifest itself as increased time away from work in the form of showing up late, leaving early, not showing up at all or even quitting altogether. 

Burnout effects on the individual

Chronic burnout and the events leading up to it are a form of stress. Chronic stress can have catastrophic effects on our short and long-term health. It can also play a significant role in raising the risk of chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and metabolic disorders.  

Work stress often manifests itself as pure exhaustion. Chronic exhaustion can lead to general mood irritability or apathy, and difficulty coping with high workloads can turn into situational anxiety or depression. This creates a vicious cycle in which burnout-fueled emotional dysregulation contributes to lack of sleep, and the chronic fatigue that results from poor sleep contributes to low energy in the workplace, which sets the stage for worsening burnout. Sleep disruption also has poor effects on our immune system, making us more susceptible to infection. 

What can we do about burnout

While it is easy to suffer in silence, one of the most important ways to combat burnout is to seek help. Talk to colleagues. Talk to your boss. Share the challenges you face in the work setting. Through discussions with your employer, you can explore changes to improve the work experience. Otherwise, it might be time to step away from your current workplace and find a healthier working environment.

As the familiar saying goes, “You can’t take care of others until you first take care of yourself.” Remember the basics: regular sleep and exercise, a balanced diet and maintaining a supportive social network. Preserve time for the activities that give you space to recharge and reflect. Also, keep tabs on your mental health and how it can influence your perspective on work.

Ultimately, burnout affects everyone at all levels. As a result, it is in our best interest to become intentional about preventing impending burnout, recognizing signs of burnout and combatting active burnout. 

If you think you’re experiencing burnout, take this self-test. Here are some additional ways to combat burnout. If you’re having thoughts of self-harm, please visit 988lifeline.org.

If you don’t have a doctor, or you’re looking for a new one, NGPG has many qualified providers. You can search for one and book an appointment online