Are You or Someone Close to You At Risk for Burnout, Maybe Without Even Knowing It?

Here are the warning signs to look for, so it doesn’t take you or your spouse or employee or business partner down out of the blue

In honor of September being National Suicide Prevention Month, I’ll be writing all my articles about topics concerning mental health. This first week is part 1 of a series and we will address BURNOUT, a topic that is particularly rampant now following the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you or people you care about work in the professions I mention in this article who are at higher risk for burnout? Then please share with them and reach out to see how you can better support them. Thank you for reading! If you find value in my writing, please consider subscribing to my personal mailing list so you’ll never miss an article (Articles are published every Monday, except for holidays, when I delay it to Tuesdays).

Bob Was Forced to Quit Due to Burnout (like Many, Many Other Professionals)

“Did you hear the news? Bob quit. Read the memo that he sent this morning.” The office was buzzing with nervous energy. People were unfocused, confused, and restless. Bob was our leader, our boss, our bedrock. This had to be a mistake because Bob loved his job. He was not just good at all, he was the best. And the company knew it. He’d recently been promoted for the third time in just under three years. Bob was a star. Why would he leave? 

The memo answering this question hinted at the truth: “After investing all my energy into the company for the past three years, I need a break and some rest. Therefore, I’m leaving my position as CMO. Sally M. will be your interim CMO until a permanent replacement is found. I know you are in good hands with her. I will always cherish the amazing work we did with my incredible team at (x company). Thanks for everything, and please stay in touch.”

None of us saw it coming, or did we? Bob had burned out, that much was clear. But whose fault was it? Was it the CEO for being too demanding? Was it a toxic work culture? Were the employees to blame who took so much effort and emotional investment to manage? Whatever the reasons, Bob had paid the price.

An increasing number of people are quitting good jobs due to burnout, especially related to stress in the workplace during the COVID pandemic. 

Myself having worked in a toxic environment in Silicon Valley, I can attest that we need to take corporate wellness and stressful work cultures seriously. 

Let’s have a closer look at burnout, what it is, the symptoms, and the people who are at the highest risk.

What Is the Definition of Burnout?

Freudenberger originally defined burnout to be a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. 

Today, the World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Another famous authority on this subject, Christina Maslach identified three dimensions of burnout: 

  • exhaustion, 
  • cynicism and detachment, and 
  • lack of accomplishment from work

She is the creator, along with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most widely used instrument for measuring job burnout, and has written numerous articles and books, including The Truth About Burnout and Burnout: The Cost of Caring.

Is Burnout a Mental Illness or the Same as Depression?

No, it isn’t. ‘Burnout syndrome’ isn’t recognized officially by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder. Unlike Depression, which has a clear set of internationally recognized symptoms, Burnout varies by profession and by circumstances. Burnout is linked to a cause, whereas Depression is linked to symptoms. With that said, Burnout may hide an underlying Depression so one should seek out professional mental help to confirm.

It is estimated that 2 out of 5 psychiatrists suffer from professional burnout, according to the APA.

Psychotherapist and author of the book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottleib said in this interview:

“I think there is a lot of stigma around the idea of getting help for emotional struggles. We value our emotional health differently than we value our physical health.”

Who Discovered Burnout Syndrome?

The term ‘burnout syndrome’ first became well-known thanks to the American-German psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who published a now-famous scientific article about it in 1974. He published more articles and later went on to publish a book called “Burnout: The High Cost Of High Achievement.” Sigmund Ginsburg also published a key article on this topic in the same year (1974) called The Problem of the Burned-Out Executive that played a key role in bringing attention and awareness to the issue of burnout.

Why Should You Be Concerned About Burnout?

You may be at higher risk without even knowing it. Read below the personality types and professions who should particularly be viligent for signs of burnout. While burnout isn’t a mental health disorder, it often leads to depression and health issues, if not treated at early onset. It has also been found to be linked to drug and alcohol abuse. Others cope by overeating or over-indulging in other unhealthy activities. Please be aware of the signs to look for in yourself and your loved ones.

Why Should Employers Be Concerned about Burnout?

This is not an individual’s personal problem; burnout is a workplace issue, says Harvard Business Review:

Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person

A study released by Indeed reveals alarming numbers:

Out of 1,500 workers surveyed, more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.

In another study conducted by McKinsey, nearly half of the 5,000+ full-time employed survey participants reported feeling mildly burned out.

Deloitte also takes workplace burnout seriously and conducted its own survey on this concerning problem.

But most importantly, the source of burnout (workplace stress) is costing companies big money. A study conducted by Harvard Business School estimated that workplace stress caused additional expenditures of anywhere from $125 to $190 billion dollars a year — representing 5 to 8 percent of national spending on health care.

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Are Certain Professions at Higher Risk for Burnout?

Yes, burnout was first identified in the human services fields (physicians, nurses, and teachers) and continues to dominate in those fields, although it has definitely been found in other professions.

People working in a Medical field are at very high risk for burnout as are Lawyers, Minimim Wage Workers, EducatorsPolice Officers, and CPAs.

Research by Schaufeli and Enzmann (1998), measured the emotional exhaustion levels of a variety of different occupations and concluded that teachers ranked highest for emotional exhaustion, followed by workers in social services and medicine, and workers in mental health and post-secondary education had the lowest levels. They also found that police officers and physicians suffered most from one particular aspect of burnout called depersonalization.

Other professional fields which were reported to carry a higher burnout rate are Design, Air Traffic Control, Sales and Business Development, Mental Health Care Professionals, and Financial Management.

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Which Personality Types Are More Prone to Burnout?

Do you know a person who has one of the following personality types (or maybe yourself)? They are the highest at risk for burnout. If you know people like this, please keep a good eye on them and look for the following warning signs of potential burnout:

1) The Type A/ Workaholic/ Perfectionist

Driven, hard-working, competitive, ambitious, organized, with a tendency to multitask and over-deliver, these types are typically your star employees or entrepreneurs. Sometimes they are referred to by behavioral psychologists as Strivers or Superstars. They stand out. Their flaws are that they are often impatient, anxious, egotistical, rigid in their beliefs and ways, highly status-conscious, quick to anger, and concerned with time. They may even joke that they love stress. They are constantly in overdrive mode and have a hard time changing gears or even unplugging. Workaholics usually defend their work style and are even proud of it. If they are in management, this can lead to creating a toxic culture of overwork. But it is still a controversial topic as some corporate leaders advocate for it. I wrote a post about workaholism a while ago that received many interesting comments both for and in defense of it.

The bottom line is that overwork is proven to lead to health consequences. Humans need breaks, rest, proper nutrition, exercise, and time off. If Type A is managing a team, there is a high risk for an unhealthy work environment.

Typical Professions: Law, Finance, Business, Sales, Design, Higher-Level Education

2) The Compassionate Caregiver/ People Pleaser/ Empath

Sometimes referred to as Compassion Fatigue, this personality type cares so much that they put others’ needs before their own. They often, but not always, work in professions providing care to others. They can’t say ‘no’ and accept more work than they should, often sacrificing time for their own wellbeing, and are unable to set clear boundaries around their work and personal lives.

Excessive hours, a stressful workplace, and exposure to working with people dealing with pain or trauma can all take a toll on this personality type. 

Behaviors to look at are working too long without breaks nor days off, skipping sleep and meals, and not having a private life.

This type of behavior is very dangerous as the person’s mental and physical health is put at risk.

Typical Professions: Nurses, Teachers, Social Workers, or Assistants

3) The Emotionally Disconnected Stuffer

This personality type falls into two sub-categories: the Awares and the Unawares. The Awares recognize they are suffering but they fake it by intentionally suppressing their emotions and ignoring them. Nurses are a good example of this since they will try to appear cheerful even when they are suffering inside. Other professions where pleasantness is a job requirement are at high risk, such as Retail, Hospitality, Sales, or Customer Services. The Unawares, on the other hand, are numb. They tend to have lower emotional intelligence, high Neuroticism, and low Extroversion 

This type of burnout is quite dangerous as well and extremely unhealthy for the individual.

Typical Professions: Nursing, Retail, Hospitality, Sales, or Customer Services

What are the Stages and Signs of Burnout?

In their 1981 publication, The work stress connection: How to cope with job burnout,Veninga, R.L. and Spradley, J.P. developed a model to describe 5 stages of work burnout as follows:

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Take an honest assessment of yourself and your team members.

Don’t let things get past stage two at work, ever.

Because as soon as they do, there is damage and measures will be required to fix them. Removing the stressor isn’t enough. An individual will require time off to recoop. They will require some structural changes in their work. And even afterwards, they will require some additional emotional support for a while since the bad memories and negative associations are there. This is a lot more effort than simply monitoring the work environment and keeping people out of distress in the first place.

What Are the Symptoms of Burnout?

Along with colleague Gail North, Freudenberger created a list of 12 phases of burnout

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How Can We Prevent Burnout? How to Seek Help for Burnout?

Stay tuned for next week’s article where I dive into solutions and resources to combat burnout. Don’t want to miss the next article? Sign up for my personal mailing list. You will receive the article sent directly to your Inbox every Monday morning (or Tuesday in case of a holiday).

Have an amazing week, don’t burn out, and tune in next week for Part II — Burnout Prevention and Solutions.

Hi! I am Krista Mollion and I run a weekly newsletter series called Take Back Mondays, where I help people love Mondays again. It has been twenty years since I entered the workforce, over which time I have worked both in larger SaaS companies and run a digital boutique agency. I have managed hundreds of people, both in-house and remotely, from multiple nationalities, ages, cultures, and languages. Today I work as a business coach to help people turn their skills and passions into online businesses. If you like this article, please consider subscribing to my personal mailing list here.

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