Burnout Protection Series – for Ambitious and Caring Professionals who work in healthcare and education:
What is burnout? And, how do you protect against it?
“I was very anxious before going to work in the morning. I’d been unwell with postnatal depression before, and that was coming back, so I had to increase my medication. It was the constant feeling like a rabbit in the headlights in work; the fear of making a mistake adds to your anxiety.”
These are the words Dr Stephanie de Giorgio, a locum GP, kindly shared with The Independent.
Burnout is what happens when you are emotionally exhausted. It was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, who observed the loss of will in staff looking after people addicted to drugs.
There are many different words you can use to describe burnout. Fatigue, depletion and drain go some way to summing up the experience of burnout. But what causes burnout?
The seven causes of burnout
Several problems in your work environment cause burnout.
Christina Maslach is a psychology professor at Berkeley in California. Since the 1980s, she has been researching this thing called ‘burnout’, and she has found seven specific causes:
- Work overload
- Lack of job control
- Insufficient reward
- Breakdown of community
- Value Conflict
- Job-person Incongruity
Here are a few examples.
GPs, nurses, therapists and teachers often work incredibly long hours. Early starts and late finishes take their toll. But with work pressures on the rise, the urge to take work home in the evening and at weekends can take over.
Lack of Control
Targets set by government policies can cause significant disruption. Instead of focusing on what you think is essential, the powers above demand you to complete unnecessary paperwork.
Pay depends on your career stage; for many, the opportunity to earn more is missing. Caring professionals work hard, and they provide an essential service to society. Pay freezes and low wages frustrate and anger professionals who merely want appropriate financial recognition for what they do.
Breakdown of Community
Conflicts at work are a breeding ground for worry and rumination. When people p*** you off, it can stir up negative feelings. You think about it when you are at home, and it can get inside you when you’d instead be thinking about something else.
Changing aspects of your environment is difficult, so what do you do?
How well your work environment takes care of you is significant in preventing burnout. Some of the solutions are obvious. You replace the cause with a more worthwhile goal. For example, swap:
- Work Overload with a Sustainable Workload
- Lack of Job Control with Feelings of Choice and Control
- Insufficient Reward with Recognition and Reward
- Breakdown of Community with Sense of Community
“But…” I hear you say. “How do we do that?” The trouble with these solutions is that they aren’t something you can make happen. Even if you could, they take time. And, they take a concerted effort from the group to see it through. They aren’t quick wins!
So, does this mean finding ways to make your work environment less stressful is hopeless? In short, no! There are other ways.
Are you just stressed or nearing burnout?
Stress and burnout are not the same things. Stress is what you feel when you get up in the morning. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stress can energise you, make you want to get involved and help you feel like you are doing a good job.
But when you feel burned out, the opposite happens. You feel exhausted, become more cynical, and feel ineffective in your actions.
Burnout is what happens when the stress goes on for too long. Recent research with school teachers found that a restful Christmas holiday was essential to their recovery between the winter and spring (Flaxman).
Does burnout come from caring too much?
Burnout and caring are intimately linked. If you didn’t care, then you wouldn’t work so hard. But we also should be careful because this is a trap. Whilst watching and wanting to make a difference is what drives you, it can become an unrelenting standard.
When you feel like anything you do, you could do better; it is an unrelenting standard. It is an unrelenting standard when you think everything you do needs to be perfect. And, whilst reaching for the stars is admirable, you can easily overlook something important.
When you focus on doing as much as possible and to the best of your ability, you might forget to look out for what you need. You might put off taking breaks and resting in the evenings and at weekends. And this is a recipe for burnout.
It doesn’t work to put off what you need when you care so much about other people. And this is a challenge for many helping professionals. You can neglect what you need to stay fresh and recharge because you are overwhelmed by the demands of the communities you serve.
Three nails you’ll need to keep hammering throughout your working life
You must beat three kinds of nails to stay in check and protect yourself against burnout. These nails represent three areas that require your attention to remain engaged, involved and influential. They are:
- Professional Development
- Looking after your Personal Self
Caring professionals meet, help and say farewell to thousands of people throughout their careers. Some days, you might see a handful. On other days, you might see many more.
And to help you manage your relationships, it pays to know how you successfully start and end them. More than that, how you effectively connect and disconnect with the people that come through your door.
The Cycle of Caring
The cycle of caring talks about four stages. A lot like the seasons of the year, they are all different and equally important. The first stage in this cycle is Attachment. No matter what you do or who you are caring for, people love an emotional connection. It helps you through difficult experiences when you are concerned about your health. And, it helps you when you are learning stuff that takes you way outside your comfort zones.
The second stage is Active Involvement. It is when you get down to work. You get busy doing what you do to look after or teach a person. But, it would help if you had the energy and the enthusiasm to do it effectively.
The third stage is Separation. It is the opposite of Attachment and involves letting go. Just like you need to let go of children as they grow and age so they can develop into independent adults.
The fourth stage is Re-Creation, where you rest, play and have fun. You recharge your batteries so that you are ready for stage one again.
So, the challenge is to attend to this cycle through micro-behaviours. You don’t have much time between people, so you need to focus on what you can to connect, help them out, separate and re-focus on yourself. That is how you care effectively for your patients, students, and yourself.
I bet that one of the reasons you chose your career was because you like to be intellectually stimulated. Whilst you’re training, that is easy because you’re learning so many new things. But once you get into your job, your time gets filled up with seeing people.
The solution is to identify how you want to develop professionally at different stages. Some people are constantly studying, and that can cause problems. On the other hand, you might have stopped learning new things or stretching yourself.
Although taking on new challenges can seem scary when stressed, it protects you against burnout. New challenges help you learn and expand your knowledge and your skill. It stimulates parts of your brain that help to level out your stress hormones. And your growth builds your confidence in what you do.
Investing in your Personal ‘Self’
It can be the most challenging commitment. But, as you discovered earlier, it is a critical stage of being an effective carer. It would be best if you looked after yourself so that you could reconnect and help people.
How you take care of yourself can be just small measures. It might involve asking for help at work. It might look like laughing with someone. Or, it might mean ensuring you do some exercise even when you don’t feel like it.
This article taught you about burnout and how to protect yourself against it. You saw how the work environment could be a source of stress or play a supportive role. You considered the differences between stress and burnout and understood that unrelenting standards could make you try too hard and forget to look after yourself.
You learned that to protect yourself against stress and burnout, and you need to pay attention to three areas of your life: relationships, professional development and your personal life or self.
There is more to come
This article is the first in a series of articles aimed at helping you protect yourself against burnout. In this series, you’ll get to work through what you’ve learned about here only in more detail. In next week’s article, we shall look at how to navigate professional uncertainty during the early stages of your career.
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