As a Clinical Psychologist running my own private practice, I have learned to thrive under stress. When I reflect on it, harnessing the innate pressure that comes alongside my role has undoubtedly improved my productivity, efficiency and ultimately my performance. As I say this however I am acutely aware of the fine line between using this pressure to my advantage and being engulfed by it. While short bursts of workplace stress can help us to prepare, focus and work more effectively, chronic stress can impact the quality of our work as well as our lives.
In todays society many of us work in very stressful environments, where we are asked to do more than we can with inadequate resources. We often respond to these unrealistic demands with feelings of anger, frustration and irritation. We turn inwards and criticise ourselves for our lack of effectiveness, intelligence, skill or ability. We tell ourselves the story that we should be able to do this or that we are not good enough. We fail to take our frustrations and turn them into effective boundary setting or conversations with our leaders and colleagues to discuss the unrealistic demands that are being placed on us. We begin to believe the story that it is in fact our responsibility to complete these tasks at all costs. It is a slow ‘drip, drip, drip’ where we can perhaps find ourselves working longer hours, checking in with out emails in the evenings, or focusing on work at the dinner table rather than those people who are right in front of us. Many of us don’t even recognise, or realise, what is happening. We begin to feel physically and emotionally exhausted, the quality of our work and of our relationships decline. We become increasingly ineffective, we feel disengaged, and our stress levels rise. The result — Burnout.
A term coined in the 1970’s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, burnout can be broken down into three components; exhaustion, cynicism and inefficiency. Although it is widely agreed that burnout encompasses these three facets, experts are yet to agree on a definition of burnout and, strictly speaking, there is no diagnosis of “burnout.” Many psychologists are in fact coming to understand burnout as a coping mechanism against intolerable pressure and stress. Burnout can in fact be quite functional. It is the only tool that your mind and body have left to keep you safe. But it is not a decision that you make; it happens unconsciously.
Burnout is taking up more and more room in my clinic than I can ever remember it having done before. But burnout is only a label, a description of the symptoms that my clients are feeling and experiencing. It is not an explanation. “Burnout” encompasses a spectrum of experiences, and it does not explain the ‘why' of the symptoms. Some individuals seem more prone to burnout than others. At the extreme end there are those who shut down entirely, they cannot get to work or out of bed even and they can seek medical investigations for the physical symptoms that they are experiencing. Others however might only show mild symptoms of anxiety, low mood, struggling to motivate themselves or focus, and feel detached from day-to-day life. The label does not help us to understand why burnout has become your experience.
The job itself does not cause burn out. The way you experience the job and the story you tell yourself regarding it is the missing piece.
Current statistics indicate that one in four people now suffer from mental health difficulties. Perhaps it is time to move away from that kind of thinking. It is not ‘us and them’; it’s each of us living a life with peaks and troughs and anyone suffering from enough pressure could be at risk of developing burnout.