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Life's flames and embers ~ Tackling 'burnout'

'Burnout', the feeling that you have hit and emotional and motivational brick wall, is common in high pressure settings such as the workplace. What can be done to tackle this feeling and re-invigorate ourselves to meet our full potential and lead happy, productive lives?

Beating stress and fulfilling our potential

Burnout — often termed ‘burnout syndrome’ as it’s an array of different effects on the mind and body — develops gradually. It creeps up over a matter of months or even years, often affecting the most successful, most driven, most committed people, and causing, at its worst, mental and physical collapse.

The syndrome was first named back in the 1970s when New York psychiatrist, Herbert Freudenberger, observed a phenomenon among colleagues at the addiction support centre where he worked. Once they’d been there for a while, both volunteers and physicians at the centre stopped being effective. They got jaded and lost their empathy and compassion for the people they had wanted to help.

Freudenberger felt something similar himself: He’d become cynical about his work, and dismissive of colleagues. He shared the lack of motivation and the feeling of being trapped, despite the urge to work even harder.

A stressful work life can lead to burnout

To describe what he saw, Freudenberger borrowed a term from the community he was treating. ‘Burnout’–used by his clients–referred to the vicious effects of long-term drug abuse which brought about emotional and physical destruction. Freudenberger saw the parallels. Interestingly enough, novelist Graham Green had also used it in his 1960 book ‘A Burnt Out Case’, which details the deep indifference to life of his protagonist.

Freudenberger went on to study the phenomenon in depth, and with other researchers, came to describe the processes which many of his own ‘burnt out cases’ were experiencing. This has become very much a part of the way doctors, therapists and researchers view burnout syndrome through the subsequent 30 years or so, across the USA first, and then over much of the rest of the world.

Many professionals prone to overwork

At first, it was mainly the caring professions and people in some form of public service who were thought to be especially at risk — people who came into a job with a sense of vocation, and a desire to right wrongs, or bring about positive change. So teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses, social workers were part of the research studies from the very beginning. They continue to be thought of as particularly prone to the overwork, with the compulsive, driven behaviours seen in some individuals, all too often resulting in a full-on burnout.

More recently, the syndrome has been identified across all professions. Jobs that require or encourage long hours and weekend working, and that attract people who are ambitious and dedicated, feature in the studies, too.

What does appear to be a common factor, and is one of the diagnostic criteria, is that these behaviours are linked with work — and that while depression and fatigue may overlap with burnout, the particular characteristics of burnout are not seen in people who are depressed and unemployed, or suffering grief, or who have stress in other parts of their lives.

Treatment and prevention

Treatment usually involves time away from work, and a complete change of lifestyle during that time and afterwards. The research shows there are ways of increasing your chances of preventing burnout, especially if you recognise the tendency to work too hard in your own life. Key factors in prevention include:

  • Getting a hobby or other activity you enjoy, and which allows you to feel in control
  • Making time for friends and family — not cancelling arrangements because of work, but regarding your leisure and social time as equally important to your own well-being as your performance at work
  • Eating better, so you enjoy meals and pay attention to their quality
  • Cutting down or cutting out false ‘support’ from alcohol, cigarettes or drugs

The ‘work-life’ balance you strive for should be real, and become part of your routine——and forever.

The House Partnership, 26th November 2015

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