Perhaps you’ve heard the term “burnout” and no we are not talking about that certain group of kids you’d see everyday in high school hanging out underneath the football bleachers. No, we are talking about something far more serious and can affect just about anyone and their job. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is defined as, “an exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” In health professions, burnout is defined as the experience of emotional and physical exhaustion together with strong feelings of frustration and failure. These individuals demonstrate negative attitudes by a loss of concern for the patient and a withdrawal from work.
Burnout does not just magically appear one day and all of the sudden you’re down and out. No, there are usually 4 stages to this detachment and it is very important to recognize them before it becomes full blown burnout.
The first stage, physical and emotional exhaustion is very common and can happen to most. I’m pretty sure you have a life outside of work and there are a number of reasons outside of work coupled with those at the workplace that can lead to this.
The second stage to burnout is shame and doubt. As you become more and more overwhelmed, your sense of competence decreases and your feeling of shame increases. You may start to discount past accomplishments, even in the face of objective evidence. At this stage of burnout, you may find yourself sighing heavily, breathing deeply, and experiencing a profound sense of loss, uncertainty, and vulnerability.
The third stage of burnout is cynicism and callousness. As a defense against feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy, many individuals decide there is only one thing to do: protect themselves. This may work for a bit but ultimately it just prolongs the inevitable. As a healthcare provider you are there to help and by putting your guard up means alienating those (the patients) who may not deserve such treatment. The hostility can turn into mistrust and then you become cynical and callous. Not good.
The fourth and final stage to burnout is the feeling of vulnerabiltiy, collapse and crisis. This is it, you begin to feel like there is no hope for you, you’re worn to the bone and exhausted. All your defenses have dried up and there seems like there’s no where else to go but down… This you do not want to happen. So what can you do to protect yourself from burnout?
“Burnout: Coping with Stress” is a great article that goes into greater detail on the causes and symptoms of burnout among therapists.
Here’s another fine article on burnout, “Burnout of Therapists. Inevitable or Preventable?”
If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, start taking self-inventory and try and figure out where this stress is coming from. Once you have pinpointed the cause of your agitation, talk with your superiors and peers about how you can improve this situation and prevent it from escalating any further. If anything, maybe you just need a bit of a break from the job, so take some much needed PTO and try and re-charge before it gets worse. There are hundreds of ways in which you can prevent burnout from happening to you or any of your co-workers and if you suspect someone you know is suffering from such, share with them what you’ve learned and you’ll all be happy for it.