One of my favourite one-liners from a movie comes from the 2002 Spider-Man movie where Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker. He is sitting with his grandmother in hospital. She tells him that he looks tired and he should look after himself. Then she drops the bomb: “You are not Superman, you know.”
A good start in the prevention of burnout is to accept that we are not Superman. We all have physical limits as to the amount of stress we can endure, the number of hours we can work and how long we can concentrate.
People from all walks of life are being diagnosed with burnout syndrome these days. Yet, burnout is not a modern phenomenon. The US psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first identified it in people in the helping profession in 1970. Yet, as burnout is predominantly caused by (work) stress, it can debilitate anyone, at any level in society – and many people suffer from burnout and are not aware of it.
What is burnout?
Dr Christina Maslach, the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, defines burnout as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job”. It leaves its victims in a constant state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It further causes feelings of being overworked, an inability to meet life’s demands and being overwhelmed. Time pressures often lead to conflict with colleagues and loved ones, while a general absence of motivation and lack of interest (in anything) can occur.
If we look at what we are all currently living through because of Covid-19, burnout is probably far more prevalent than diagnosed. One of the most serious contributing factors, as stated in my podcast Meet me in the field by my guest Carl Herman, is: “The reality is that we don’t work from home, we live at work.”
We have lost the ability to close our office doors behind us to go home to relax or exercise. For many of us our lounge or dining room is our office. As much as we love our partners and children, we don’t get a break from them any more. Let’s not beat around the bush – family dynamics can be and are stressful. As cute as our little ones are, we need to be able to distinguish between work time and family time. We no longer get away from our stressors, because we live in them, day in, day out. Our exhaustion does not leave us, because we often exercise and/or sleep right next to the desk we work at.
Worst of all, contact with our friends and support systems is limited, which reduces our downtime and contributes to our stress. The virus has robbed us of our ability to trust our friends, neighbours, and fellow humans. We are more isolated and alone, while what we need are hugs and true connections.
When I see someone with their face mask hooked under their nose, I respond irrationally in anger. I struggle to accept how inconsiderate people can be and I react in anger. I don’t want to live in a society where every person next to me in an aisle or in a queue is a potential weapon of mass destruction. Covid-19 contributes negatively to my anxiety, anger, depression, hopelessness, and isolation. I am generally a positive person (this is a new thing – before coming into recovery from addiction, I was the Grinch personified), but this virus is starting to affect my ability to be rational and tolerant. I don’t like who I am becoming because of this pandemic.
When we look at the symptoms of burnout, it helps to know how these symptoms present in early onset and what late-stage burnout looks like.
These symptoms must be seen as lying on a continuum. At the low end, they represent stress. The more intense they become, the closer we move to the burnout stage. If we can learn to identify the symptoms early on, we can prevent reaching burnout. The symptoms will not just go away. They need to be treated. If anything, they will only get progressively worse the longer they stay unaddressed.
One of the challenges of diagnosing burnout is that many of its symptoms can be caused by something else, like certain physical, mental or psychosomatic illnesses. Anxiety disorders, depression or chronic fatigue syndrome can also contribute to a false burnout diagnosis.
Results of on-line tests, or as I like to call it, “Dr Google”, should be used with discretion and any such diagnosis should be backed up by an appropriate professional. If you suspect that you have burnout, consult a suitable professional, like a doctor, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist, for a formal diagnosis and the correct treatment.
When it comes to burnout, most of the causational problems are work-related. Make a point of being honest with yourself in assessing your stress levels at work and how that affects your life in general. Stress levels can be reduced.
Here are some tools to use when we feel we are heading towards hitting the burnout wall:
Although certain diagnostic tools do not classify burnout as a separate mental illness, it is real. Burnout can be prevented and addressed. We need to consult mental health practitioners when we realise we are in the danger zone. We won’t ignore a cyst growing on our face – why ignore other obvious symptoms that something is wrong?
It is important that once we have been diagnosed with burnout we get appropriate information to enable us to manage our treatment and healing. Treatment will mostly focus on getting to understand our stress, learning what our triggers are and teaching us effective coping mechanisms.
When wellness mental health practitioners work with burnout, we help clients to reduce their stress and teach them new and more appropriate ways of reacting to stressful situations. We not only help them to create healthier coping mechanisms to address the current burnout, but we also work on preventative measures for long-term stress reduction, inhibiting them from developing it again. We focus on their wellness.
A wellness approach to burnout treatment
Wellness revolves around mind, body, and spirit. We need to ensure a balance between these aspects of our lives. Wellness will go a long way in reducing our susceptibility to burnout.
It does not matter how hopeless we feel while suffering from burnout, there is hope. All we need to do is ask for help and be honest, open-minded and willing to get better. DM
Freddie van Rensburg is a senior wellness and addiction counsellor in his private practice. He is the in-house counsellor for Daily Maverick team members.
"I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing - especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed." ~ Mary Oliver