Burnout Compassion Fatigue

I am noticing a distressing pattern in the work I have been doing in the last few years, and that is there is almost a “Badge of Honour” for who is the most stressed, under the most pressure, or spending the longest days at work.

Some days it seems like people are gauging their effectiveness and performance on how many hours they spend at work or the exhaustion they feel at the end of the day or the amount of family time they miss out on.

When I explore this pattern of thinking, I uncover even more distressing common threads:

  • I dread getting into work each day
  • I lay awake at night worrying about the amount of work I have to do
  • I have stopped doing so much with the kids and family as I just don’t have the energy/time/motivation
  • I plan my days to only have two hours work to do each night after I put the kids to bed
  • I have stopped (my favourite sport) because I found I just didn’t want to do it anymore
  • I live on coffee and protein shakes
  • I no longer have the motivation to care for my (cat, dog, horse, kids)
  • I don’t think I can do this anymore I am out of control
  • I feel numb, nothing matters anymore

Do any of these sound familiar?

But, whilst these thinking patterns are concerning for me, the most distressing common thread I am noticing is the sense of giving control and responsibility of our state of well-being to another, whether this be an individual or our organisation.

Put simply, it is OUR job to take care of OURSELVES; no one else’s.

The choices we make are what put us in danger of burnout, I know, I am sitting in my own smoking saddle of exhaustion and I got here because I allowed it to happen.

Might you, or someone you care about, be hurtling towards workplace burnout?

What is workplace burnout?

Burnout is a term that has been used since the early 1980s to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. However, burnout does not necessarily mean that our view of the world has been damaged; vicarious trauma, or that we have lost the ability to feel compassion for others; compassion fatigue, or that we have debilitating self-worth or self-esteem; depression.1.

In short, burnout is about where you work and the conditions under which you work, not the type of work you do.

Whilst not considered a mental illness, or a medical issue, workplace burnout is considered a mental health and well-being issue. Untreated workplace burnout could conceivably result in a mental health injury.

Typically, someone experiencing workplace burnout will talk of continual fatigue, reduced compassion and empathy for others, not having the energy, and a disconnection from and disinterest in activities that would normally bring them joy, meaning or purpose.

Signs you, or others, may exhibit when experiencing burnout include:2.

  • Reduced efficiency – inability to get as much done or at a reduced standard or rate of work
  • Low motivation
  • More mistakes
  • Unrelenting fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches – jaw, back, shoulders
  • Increased cranky and frustration
  • Repeatedly assuming negative intent of others: suspicious of others motives
  • Increasing substance use: alcohol, nicotine, prescription and non-prescription drugs
  • Scathing sarcasm and negativity about almost everything
  • Reduced concentration
  • Diminished workplace performance

{Please don’t assume a diagnosis of yours or another’s condition from reading this list, some of these behaviours may be a normal part of someone’s workday or indicative of much more. If you are worried, see your doctor.}

Burnout is different from healthy stress levels. Healthy, or effective stress, is when our adrenaline and fight or flight response is activated, and we are feeling a sense of urgency, even anxious, and ready to go, our performance is enhanced; we are on fire! Healthy stress levels are also short lived, and our bodies have time to rest and recover.

Burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness and apathy, your mind is blank, and your vision dulled, you are exhausted week in and week out, it’s unrelenting, and your performance is considerably impacted. Your and your body don’t seem to recover.

Most people continue working whilst experiencing burnout, either unaware of the symptoms they are displaying and their changes in behaviour or they ignore these symptoms through an elaborate set of “lies they tell themselves” – denying the signs of burnout.

Some I have heard include:

  • I am fine
  • I am NOT in conflict
  • I am the only one who can do this
  • I will get over it, I always do
  • I need to get this done
  • No one has noticed
  • If I don’t do this… (the world will end?)
  • If I don’t do this, it is career limiting
  • If people would leave me alone…
  • It’s not me, it’s them
  • I am just tired, I will be fine after a good sleep
  • Christmas (insert holiday) is soon
  • The boss expects me to do it
  • The Minister won’t take ‘No’ for an answer

Any more bells ringing?

Some of these statements may, in fact, be true, you may be the only one who can do the task or the Minister may have high (unreasonable) expectations, but it is the denial and inability to self-reflect on your changes in behaviour and thinking, and inability to implement self-protective mechanisms, that ultimately leads to damaging your health and well-being. Potentially leading to workplace burnout.

Are there common workplace factors that can trigger burnout?

Burnout is associated with where you work, as opposed to the work you do. Workplaces exposing employees to continual high-pressure and stress, alongside lack of resources and support can make triggering burnout more likely.

But, it is the perfectionist, the reliable, conscientious and hard-working person, where work is extremely important to their self-identity and their contributions to the world are often most vulnerable to burnout.

Wearing long hours, tremendous stress and loss of personal space as a badge of honour is a sure sign that you are leading yourself towards burnout; unless you have robust self-protective mechanisms in place.

Interestingly, Professor Parker, Black Dog Institute, writes that the person who approaches work, and life, with a “she’ll be right mate, no worries” attitude is less likely to experience burnout. My recollection of my Australian upbringing was this ‘attitude’ was the common thread in life, and now find this is few of those I have the privilege to meet, and when others tell me about them, they associate this state of being with lack of care, or poor performance. When, in fact, the ability to step-back and objectively consider our present state is the skill we all could healthily develop.

What can you do?

Burnout tends to have a gradual and predictable onset, we have time to notice things are changing, whether they be in relationships with others or within our own physical and mental health.

The first step, Notice.3.  Notice when your thoughts, feelings and behaviours are being hijacked. Notice the changes in your physical being and the changes in how your family or colleagues engage with you. Notice.

Name it. Avoid the tendency to ignore or make excuses for the changes, name them. Acknowledgement of changes is a powerful way to reduce the impact, it gives you the opportunity to ‘make right’ at the earliest opportunity – before relationships are damaged.

Neutralise the impact. Choice fully adds mental health and protective strategies to your days: regular breaks, time away from technology, mindfulness, exercise, healthy food.

Create and insist on clear boundaries: closed door at times, say ‘No’, leaving work on time, go to kids game, walk the dog.

Connection with others. Having a ‘team’ on your side is truly important. Find a trusted colleague to debrief to, to share your experiences, perhaps to help identify your changes in behaviour. Talk to your family about the challenges of work, and how they can support you (trust me, they know you have changed, they may just be feeling helpless to do anything)

Thinking a holiday might do the trick? Unfortunately, curing burnout isn’t this simple, and without preparation for your holiday – mentally and physically – all you will end up doing is lying on a beach worrying about your in-tray when you get back.

Changing jobs can be a good start when it comes to addressing burnout; although you will need to take the time and make the effort to release the stress of the job you are leaving and also to adjust to the grief of your changing self-identity.

It is possible to recover from workplace burnout, and like all skills that we want to master, we need to choose who and how we want to be and practice, experiment and pick up the pieces to keep learning how to put ourselves first, to take care of ourselves first. Like me, I imagine that many of you reading this will be wryly smiling and your thoughts go to ‘that will never happen’ or ‘when do we have time for this’.

Please make the time. You are more important, to more people, than you are to your job.

1. Adapted from the work of Professor Gordon Parker AO, founder of the Black Dog Institute
3. This technique is adapted from the work of Russ Harris, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.