Burnout is the result of exhaustion of the body and then of the mind in a professional context. It remains a condition that is not very well understood that still needs to be better defined and diagnosed.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a process, not a condition, that develops over time. It is burnout caused by chronic stress at work, lasting more than 6 months. In burnout, the problem is not so much the stress or its management, but the lack of recovery from stress. It is first and foremost a depletion of the body, which distinguishes it completely from depression, as it is neither just a psychological nor just a psychiatric problem. It is a depletion of the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. In burnout, both systems are affected and the body can no longer stimulate or repair itself. In a really severe burnout, the person can no longer concentrate or recover and feels very tired all the time. And it is this biological exhaustion that affects morale.
Incidentally, there is a very recent biological test that can assess the degree of burnout in a person. It is called heart rate variability. Electrodes are placed on the patient’s chest and record the heartbeat for 24 hours. The more this heart rate varies, the better for the organism because this means that the autonomic nervous system is healthy. If, on the other hand, it is not reactive and less able to adapt to everyday life, it means that the autonomic nervous system is exhausted.
This test also helps to distinguish between people who are depressed and those who are exhausted. Burnout is still a recent pathology whose concept we have not yet fully worked out, so we are still developing treatments and diagnostic methods.
What are the risk factors?
There are three types of risk factors: social, organizational, and individual.
Within the social factors, we find risks related to our lifestyle. Firstly, the increasingly sedentary nature of our private and professional lives affects our recovery from stress. First of all, stress is a physiological response to a stressor that requires a Fight-or-flight response. During stressful situations the body expects us to expend this excess energy in physical activity. Today, we have a lot of stress, but we do not discharge the energy that results from it.
Secondly, new technologies also contribute to stress, as our professional life invades our private life and can lead to mental overload and an inability to recover. Secondly, Western society places a high value on work, which is closely linked to our identity and therefore becomes a priority in our lives. Burnout occurs in people who are very committed and dedicated to their work. Loss of meaning is also a risk factor. There are many professions in which people lose the sense of what they do in terms of their values. This can happen, for example, to engineers working in quality who are forced to shorten processes in order to produce reports or products more quickly. This is not at all in line with their perception of a job well done and they feel they are compromising their values.
There are also organizational factors, which are related to the business. This occurs when deadlines are too short, when expectations are too high, or too complicated, or when there is a lack of organization, recognition, etc.
And finally, there are individual factors. Some personalities are more at risk, especially perfectionists, who are overly dedicated to their work and find it difficult to let go of it. As these factors are internal to the individual, changing careers or employers is not necessarily enough to cure them of burnout and the situation can start all over again.
In any case, a single factor never causes burnout. It is the accumulation of several factors that causes this exhaustion of the organism, which is no longer able to recharge its batteries.
What can be done to avoid burnout?
First and foremost, we need to be aware of our own warning signs. Therefore, it is important that we know ourselves well in order to recognize them and take measures to protect ourselves as much as possible. These measures include preserving sleep, letting off steam, and recharging our batteries in our personal lives. A common misconception is that you need to rest to get healthy. However, the most important thing is to actively recover, for example, through physical activities (walking, running, sports, etc.), gardening, or attending a baseball game where you get up, scream and let off steam. It is important to understand that the body can be stressed and that there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you allow it to recover.
From a professional perspective, we need to focus on what makes us feel good about our work. In times of stress, we tend to focus only on the potential sources of danger, that is, anything that could cause problems. We lose sight of our successes and interests. A change in perspective allows us to respond without necessarily changing our professional context. We need to reflect on what is good for us, e.g. breaks with colleagues we like.
How can we recover from burnout?
The treatment consists of three steps. First, you need to raise your energy level. Some people however stress out and feel guilty about taking sick leave and as a result, don’t recover. The second phase is then one of recovery, identifying risk factors, and preparing to return to work. It’s about understanding why you burned out in the first place and about retraining yourself intellectually. There is a biological explanation for this: cortisol, one of the stress hormones, damages the brain so that neurons are injured and damaged by chronic stress. If you want to rehabilitate your intellect, you need to do memory and concentration exercises every day before you go back to work. And, of course, you need to improve your sleep and stay physically active.
Finally, the third phase of treatment is the return to work. There is often a misunderstanding here because burnout is not like any other illness where you return to work after recovery. In this case, returning to work is part of the healing process. The majority of those who suffer from severe burnout return to the same job. One of the symptoms of burnout is wanting to leave a job that exhausts you, but that is not necessarily the solution. Some of the burned-out people will later change jobs, but by choice and not because they are unable to do their work.
What should an employer do to protect its employees?
First, it is important to make the entire company aware of the risks of burnout, how it manifests itself, the risk factors and how to self-assess. Then, supervisors should be trained to identify possible burnout factors in their teams and to understand the levers for action. They are closest to the front line, so acting upstream can help prevent burnout.
If managers notice any changes in their employees, they can pay attention and talk directly to them. This type of interview requires tact and may require some prior training.