How to Identify and Avoid Burnout

Burnout and work engagement expert Professor Wilmar Schaufeli explains how to diagnose and prevent burnout at work.

Wilmar Schaufeli is a professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a distinguished research professor at Leuven University in Belgium. He has studied job stress and burnout for decades and now focuses on the more positive aspects of engagement at work. 

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How does one define burnout? 

In essence, burnout is mental exhaustion. That’s the very short definition. All the mental energy is drained and you feel exhausted. Not only mentally, but also physically. Both are very much interconnected with each other. It also means that you have difficulties in managing your emotions. You might lash out, you might feel very sad, or start to cry. This lack of emotional control has to do with this exhaustion because you lack energy and controlling or managing your emotions requires energy. The same applies to attention, focus and concentration. When people are burnt out they cannot really concentrate, they cannot process information very easily and often forget things. 

This exhaustion is one important component, the second is mental distancing. This also relates to this exhaustion because people try to distance themselves from the source of their exhaustion, their work because they’re overloaded. They try to create some distance in order to not be too involved in their job, to ‘retire internally’ so to speak. In the hope and expectation that by doing so they will reduce their energy output and instead recover energy. 

So essentially it has to do with exhaustion on different levels, and with distancing yourself from your work. 

What is the relationship between stress and burnout? 

The scientific knowledge of stress shows it to be the result of an interaction between a person and their environment. So when the environment is too demanding, and you are not able to cope with these demands in a good way, then there is a disturbed balance. This is the usual notion of stress in science. 

You can also consider it as a kind of pre-burnout situation. So, it starts with what you might call stress. Meaning that you have these very general psychosomatic complaints and tension symptoms. The difference is that burnout is more specific, and in burnout, you experience

exhaustion, a symptom that is specific to that condition. You could say this person is obviously stressed, meaning that they cannot cope very well with the situation and it results in all kinds of symptoms. But not necessarily in this more grave, specific condition, where everything is focused on the loss of energy. 

Essentially, it’s a balance between investment and outcomes. Between investing your energy and being energized by your job. You invest a lot of energy in work, which is not a problem as long as you can recover this energy at work. For example, if you work for clients and you have a successful experience then you get this big reward that gives you energy. The same happens when you come home and you do something really relaxing. You go out with your friends or family, maybe you do some sports, and you recover this energy. Then after a couple of days, you might feel stressed. But that’s normal, that’s not a problem at all. So it’s about the balance. If you’re not able to strike the balance and you cannot get energy from your job or outside your place of work then you are in trouble. 

Are there certain people who are more prone to occupational burnout? 

It’s important to stress that work engagement is often misunderstood or confused for workaholism, or work addiction. People say when you are engaged and always work hard then you will burn out. But that’s not true. Our research shows over and over again that employees who are engaged know how to handle the balance, and will not burn out. Those who do not are work addicted. On the surface, it looks like a work addict is also engaged, because they work very hard, put a lot of energy into their job, and identify with their job. But the main difference is that an engaged person is intrinsically motivated and is working hard and diligently because they like the job and the reward is in the work itself. Whereas a workaholic is working hard, not because they enjoy the work, but because they dislike not working. So when a workaholic is at home, or on holiday, they feel uneasy and guilty. Going to work is a kind of therapy for workaholics to avoid feeling those negative emotions that are associated with not working, so they have another motivational system working. It is people addicted to working that actually burn themselves out because they always need to be working. They cannot relax and therefore this balance is disturbed. 

What can employers and organizations do to create an environment to help those of us that are feeling burned out? 

As employers, you can reduce the demands. For instance, reduce time pressure on deadlines and lower the workload. Or try to give people more flexibility to solve their home conflicts to reduce emotional demands. But this is usually very difficult to do because decreasing the workload means that people will do less work. You will then need more employees and this costs money. There are studies, hard evidence, that the number of nurses on a ward is directly related

to patient mortality, and medical errors. So if you increase the number of nurses, then you decrease the burnout levels, and you also decrease the mortality, but it costs a lot of money. So that’s one path to go down; reducing the demand. 

The other path for employers is to increase their resources, as you want to have a balance between demands and resources. So you can work a lot like I did in my life as a University professor. I worked much more hours than the standard that I was supposed to work. But I had a lot of autonomy, for instance, which is very important. I could decide what kind of subject I wanted to study. Whether I wanted to study burnout or depression. I got a lot of social support from recognition and had participation in decision making within my work. 

Leadership is also very important. We have researched into programming and leadership and developed a concept named ‘engaging leadership.’ In a number of studies, we were able to show that when leaders are empowering, inspiring, strengthening and connecting then they improve engagement and decrease burnout. It makes sense, if you have an inspiring boss then they make you feel that your work is meaningful. If you have a boss that is connecting each of you then you have a good atmosphere in the team. You work together, you collaborate, you get social support of all kinds from your colleagues. 

Are there early signs of burnout that you can look out for, and what can you do if you start to feel like you are burning out? 

It is a little tragic that we have people who are burnt out because they are very motivated people who like to do their work very well and feel committed to their job. This is the reason why you find this very often in education and healthcare. These people are often not able to actually acknowledge that they are nearing burnout, so they keep on going because they cannot actually admit that they might not be able to cope. They try to override this feeling, and in doing so, they are actually exhausting themselves. 

Decades ago, I did psychotherapy with people who were burnt out. All too often the story was that it started six months, one, or even two years ago. Their partner or colleague may have noticed and told them to slow down but they did not really listen to them, and continued to work. So when you feel really exhausted and it’s not something that just goes away after a nice weekend, or after a short holiday, you feel demotivated, you feel not so committed to your job anymore, then this is the first sign that something is wrong. It’s important to admit it to yourself and don’t think I can just continue and work harder, and it will go away. That’s the wrong response. So as soon as you notice this, you need to actually acknowledge it and then you can then do a couple of things: 

First off, try to analyze what it is. Do I have too much work? Do I struggle with my deadlines? If so, you can do a course in time management or you can tell your manager that this project is too

much, and that you cannot complete it on your own. It can also be that you have difficulties saying no or being assertive, because you feel so dedicated and you want to serve and help everyone, and by the end of the day you exhaust yourself. There is training for assertiveness you can do for this. There is research that shows how balancing your work and private life is very important, so you can make sure your working hours are in check and that you are not trying to do too much work. You also need to make sure you are doing things outside of work that are fun and interesting to you.

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