Why does the human body experience burnout and how to manage it?

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Burnout- The Chronic Workplace Stress

Burnout has become a global phenomenon today. A lot of talk concerning the perils of this occupational hazard is making a lot of noise at various forums. According to a survey carried out by a German insurance agency, about 9 million people suffer from burnout in this European nation. But the definition of burnout is still not clear nor are the signs and symptoms of this silent affliction. The term ‘burnout’ was coined by Herbert Freudenberger (an American psychologist) in the 1970’s.

Is Burnout a disease?

Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is however not classified as a medical condition or an illness. The chapter- ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’ contains details about burnout.

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as-
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. 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 efficacy.”


The experts agree that depression is one of the salient manifestations of burnout but while depression has been diagnosed as a clinical entity, burnout still is only considered as an occupational risk at best.

The ominous signs of Burnout

EYE FATIGUE disorderOne does not need to look deep for telltale signs of a burnout. Seeping in of cynicism at work, a lack of motivation, feeling of listlessness, sense of disillusionment, sleep disorders, and constant irritability compounded by physical signs including headache and bowel irregularities are some of the cardinal features of burnout.

Let’s discuss these in detail.

  • Unexplained fatigue– Burnout leads to exhaustion which can be physical, mental as well as emotional. Though fatigue is a natural phenomenon, in burnout, the exhaustion level is out of proportion to the work done.
  • Lack of Drive– Motivation is a big driving force which spurs us on to do stuff which sometimes is apparently beyond our prowess, means and resources. In burnout, on the contrary, a lack of motivation can make even mundane tasks seem onerous. If you must drag yourself to office every morning, it may well be a sign that job burnout is engulfing you.
  • Negative Emotions– Everyone is susceptible to feelings of pessimism and disillusionment from time to time. But if these negative emotions start to affect your work effectiveness, it can be warning sign.
  • Declining Job Performance– For a person to work at optimum levels, one needs to be at peace with oneself as well as the surroundings. If there is negativity in the air, compounded by increasing stress levels, performance takes a back seat. Even a machine needs ideal conditions in order to deliver its best; we are humans with a gamut of emotions at our disposal, each capable of affecting our efficiency.
  • Intellectual snags– Stress, if acute can help you to cope with the challenges you face at the work place. The stress hormones help one to tide over the crisis, more often than not. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to a decrease in attention spans, concentration levels and intellectual ability.
  • Interpersonal Difficulties– A major setback of job burnout is the nadir that your relationships with your colleagues at the work place can descend to. An irritable and sometimes quarrelsome attitude while dealing with the co-workers is often a result of prolonged bouts of stress. In severe cases, one can suffer from relationship blues at home also.
  • Chronic fatigue syndromeSelf-neglect– A person who is stressed out at work is prone to self-destructive ideation. This includes consuming alcohol, resorting to smoking cigarettes and self-medication (popping sleeping pills being the most common).
  • Alienation form work– A person suffering from a burnout tends to get emotionally numb as far as work is concerned. Aloofness sets in. You start distancing yourself from work and work-related stuff as you see these activities as a source of stress and anxiety. A vicious circle leads to escalation of work-related stress.
  • Preoccupation with Work– Another side of the coin is when one starts getting pre-occupied with work. It is seen as a defensive mechanism by the experts who believe that excessive indulgence with work is used by many individuals in order to veil their real state.
  • Decreased Satisfaction Levels- Being exposed to prolonged periods of stress can lead to anhedonia-an inability to enjoy life in general. A persistently sad individual may be a byproduct of job burnout.
  • Health Issues– Chronic stress can lead to multiple health related issues. These range from the innocuous looking headache and bowel irregularities to serious psychiatric diseases including depression, psychosis and suicidal ideation. According to a recent survey, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol has the potential to increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. All of these are the prominent risk factors for serious cardiovascular diseases.

Can we diagnose Burnout?

Fatigue and stresAs discussed earlier, there are some significant signs of burnout-all that one needs is an expert eye to be able to detect the origin. Most of the times, the presenting features of burnout mimic physical ailments. In these cases, it takes an elaborate clinical examination and diligent medical history evaluation to ascertain that the root cause is not organic. On the other hand, certain illnesses may lead to the signs and symptoms which resemble those associated with a state of ‘burnout’. Consumption of some medications have the potential to do the same.

There are a few questionnaires which have been devised in order to help detect burnout. One of the most commonly used questionnaires is “Maslach Burnout Inventory” (MBI). It can be used across different groups. Online surveys fail to serve the same purpose as any set of questions needs to be complemented with a consultatory session with a behavior expert. The Humane resource department of any organization needs to take the onus in this fight against the scourge of job burnout.

Risk factors for Burnout: Why does Burnout occur?

A burnout can result due to a variety of factors. These include-

Working in a high-pressure environment- Healthcare professionals, salespeople, IT individuals, and teachers are the personnel who are most commonly a victim of burnout.

Work life imbalance- Inability to strike a balance between work and personal life may burn you out quickly.

Hostile work environment– A demanding boss and uncooperative colleagues form an important external factor leading to burnout.

Abstract job description- Uncertainty regarding your role and the responsibilities designated to you can lead to work related stress.

Monotonous nature of job- A job which does not challenge you and is of a repetitive nature can lead to demotivation in many employees.

Lack of professional growth- An imbalance between the hours and the effort that you put in, and the increments that you get in return is one of the most common reasons for an employee to throw in the towel.

How to cope with Burnout?

meditation at workUnwind– After a day full of hard grind, try to relax. The medium of relaxation may depend on your personal choice and may vary from meditation, music, literature, friends or family. Cultivating a hobby is another distraction which can help unwind.

  • Dissociation is the key– Learn to dissociate yourself from office related chores when you reach home. Switching off your mobile or at least putting it on a silent mode while having dinner with family can act as a stress buster.
  • Cultivate a work-life balance– A lot has been said and a lot written about the importance of maintaining a healthy work life balance. But it is easier said than done. However, this mantra holds the key to a fruitful and prolonged career in any field.
  • Sleep-the magic drug- An uninterrupted sleep of 6-8 hours works like a magic drug in easing the nerves. It not only rejuvenates the mind but also soothes the aching joints. Lack of proper sleep is considered an independent risk factor for precipitating a burnout.
  • Self-realization is the key- Burnout can be a result of external factors related to the work place or due to internal conflicts in your mind. One needs to realize what makes one click and what tends to drag one down. Try to channel your inner resources to keep yourself motivated. At the same time, try to avoid the factors that tend to add to your stress levels.
  • Seek help– The moment you release that you may have become a victim of the pandemic of burnout is the precise time that you should reach out to people who can help you get out of the rut. Consider talking to your manager or the human resource representative at your office. Discussing your problems with your family or close friends can go a long way inn alleviating your pain.
  • Learn to let go– There comes a time when an employee needs to figure out if the organization is willing to make the required changes that can lead to a positive work environment. If the answer is ‘NO’, it is time to look for greener pastures.

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