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Burnout is a psychological condition in which a person routinely feels physically and emotionally exhausted, is cynical and critical of him or herself and others, and works less efficiently than usual. This condition is usually brought on by long-term stress, overwork, and a lack of support or acknowledgement.
Though burnout is often confused with stress, it is not the same thing. Stress is characterized by urgency and anxiety, but burnout is characterized by a loss of interest and a feeling of "giving up" or failure. It is a recognized disorder in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), a standard for classifying mental disorders endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO); but as of 2011 it is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the standard guide for classifying mental disorders in the US. If left untreated, this condition can have long-term physical, mental, and emotional effects.
Burnout has both physical and emotional signs. Though it affects people differently, those with this condition generally have at least a few of the following symptoms:
In response to these symptoms, people tend to isolate themselves and withdraw from others. They may suddenly drop responsibilities, take a long time to do things that they can usually do quickly, or procrastinate even over simple tasks. Since they can't relax naturally, they often self-medicate to create artificial relaxation with drugs, alcohol, or sleeping pills.
The overarching cause of burnout is long-term stress. This stress can come from overwork, working on things that are incompatible with one's beliefs or interests, or working without recognition or support.
Many burned out work in high-stress jobs, like medicine, pre-college education, law, law enforcement, and social work. It can also be caused by a stressful home life too though. For instance, a stay-at-home mom who is solely responsible for running the house and caring for her children can be just as at-risk as someone in the workplace if she does not get appropriate breaks, have support from her spouse or family, or have the resources to do what is expected of her.
Burnout happens because of a combination of internal and external factors. External factors are often more apparent, but internal factors are just as important.
The best way to prevent burnout is to recognize when risk factors like those listed above occur and work to change them or avoid them. Though it's not always possible to avoid triggers entirely — people sometimes have to stay in jobs that they aren't suited for because they need the money, or may be unable to stop doing a certain project, like raising a child — there usually are some ways to modify the situation.
For instance, an at risk stay-at-home mom or dad could try setting more boundaries, like having the spouse help with certain parts of the housework; or she or he might seek out a support network among people in a similar situation. A person who's stressed at work could discuss changing projects with the boss, or could ask for clarification about the expectations for his or her position.
Making sure that physical, mental, and emotional needs are being met is another big part of preventing this condition. Ways to do this include:
As with many conditions, burnout is easier to overcome the earlier is it recognized. Having a network of people who care for one's well-being is an important aspect of this, since burned out people may not be able to notice the symptoms in themselves until they become severe.
Though serious, burnout is definitely a treatable condition. There are both medication-based and alternative treatments, one of which may be more or less appropriate depending on the cause, and which can be used together as well. In some cases, a person may need a complete change of job or lifestyle to recover.
The most important part to treating burnout is recognizing it and speaking with someone about it. It's important to schedule a visit with a doctor, since he or she may be able to shed light on problems that could be contributing to the condition, but burned out people may also want to consider talking with a counselor, a religious adviser, or even just someone who can empathize.
A doctor may prescribe medication to treat the symptoms of burnout, including:
There are also many non-medication-based treatments, including:
Though these types of treatments can help with the symptoms of burnout, it's usually impossible to truly treat it if the situation or internal factors remain unchanged. Some people find that they need to quit their jobs entirely, take a long-term leave of absence, or negotiate with their boss to change things about their workplace or schedule.
If burnout is left untreated or unaddressed, it tends to get more and more severe, and can cause long-term physical, mental, and emotional damage. Physically, it can up a person's chances of heart problems, strokes, digestive disorders, fertility problems, diabetes, weight gain, tooth grinding, and problems with the bones and muscles, among other things.
Mentally and emotionally, long-term burnout can lead to depression and anxiety, forgetfulness, nightmares, mental breakdowns, and a risk of suicide. In some cases, this condition has actually led to people dying from overwork or killing themselves. This is particularly notable in Japan, where the phenomenon of karoshi, or death from overwork, is considered a social problem and is addressed by various government and corporate programs.
This condition also has an indirect effect on others, and can be dangerous in those working in jobs where others rely on them, like medicine. A burned out employee is much more likely to make mistakes and careless errors than one who is focused on his or her job, which can be extremely dangerous in medical, social work, and educational settings. For instance, a doctor who is burned out may be much more likely to miss a symptom or make a mistake in a prescription, or a teacher who is burned out might not notice when a child demonstrates signs of abuse.
www.helpguide.org — A comprehensive site covering causes, effects, triggers, and treatments for burnout.
www.cdrcp.com — A physician-authored resource on burnout with additional links.
www.lifeevolver.com — Information about preventing burnout.
www.mindtools.com — Information about causes of burnout and treating burnout and job stress.
www.apa.org — The American Psychological Association's site on building resilience, which can help prevent burnout.
Video 1 — A video quiz about burnout.
Video 2 — A short video about the physical effects of job stress.
Especially recognizing the symptoms of burnout can be rather difficult, since at the beginning (phase 1) you still feel so energetic and you can still do a lot. And then the world around you gets dark and your efforts seem so useless.