What is burnout? How does it show up in people?

Although burnout has always been present in people’s lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought it to the forefront of work-related conversations. There was a time when people were extremely hesitant to talk about burnout because of the stigma attached to it.

However, thanks to the popular rhetoric and increasing awareness around mental health, people have been a lot more vocal about their struggles, especially at work.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an occupational syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The World Health Organization also shares three main characteristics of burnout, which are:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
  • Reduced professional efficacy

While this definition accurately captures the work-related aspects of burnout, there is a different aspect that goes even deeper, i.e. towards the individual who is experiencing it and the environment that they’re working and living in.

Causes of Burnout in Healthcare Workers

One of the first things to understand about burnout is that there’s a living, breathing human being on the receiving end. In other words, different people might be exhibiting their burnout in different ways.

Some people may feel constantly tired; others may exhibit mood swings or constant negativity; still others may stop giving their hundred percent at work the way that they used to.

As cautioned by the WHO, “burn-out refers specifically to phenomenon in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” But many doctors do agree that burnout can also be exacerbated by various factors in someone’s personal life.

Burnout in Healthcare Workerss below :

While burnout can affect people working in all industries, according to Endocrinology.org, it seems to affect healthcare professionals nearly twice as much as an average member of the working population. The reason for this lies behind the amount of time healthcare workers put into taking care of others’ physical and emotional needs.

The heights of the pandemic saw the rise of 48-hour shifts and healthcare workers staying back at work at times for a week or more at a stretch.

“At that time, an endless tunnel with no relief in sight turned into many dark moments for healthcare workers” says Dr. Renu Chawla.

When stressors from their personal lives are factored in, there’s no surprise that healthcare workers are more susceptible to burnout than people of other professions.

B.1 – Direct Work Influences

1. High Pressure, High Stress

Healthcare professionals get very few opportunities to work at an easy or relaxed pace. Moreover, some medical specialties are more susceptible to high pressure and high stress situations, such as Cardiology or Emergency Room staff.

As time passes and the stress accumulates, it begins to manifest itself as burnout through physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion.

2. Feeling Underappreciated

We all know what it’s like to give something our best effort and not receive the appreciation we deserve. Very often, workers who feel burnt out also share that they feel unvalidated or underappreciated in their workplace.

Covid-19 also added another extreme dimension to feelings of being underappreciated – patients and families who turned violent or abusive. “During the worst days of the pandemic, healthcare workers were constantly facing abusive people who would vent their frustrations inappropriately,” says Dr. Amit Agarwal. “Sometimes they even received death threats but continued to show up to work anyway. Imagine the toll on their bodies and minds.”

3. Working in a Toxic Environment

One of the fastest tracks to burnout is a toxic environment where people receive no outlet or understanding for the stresses they face on a daily basis. “In these environments, the expectation to work with a hundred percent effort is constant, but the rewards are quite few,” says Dr. Amit.

“In these environments, it’s very natural for people to become negative, complain constantly, and vent out their frustrations through constant cynicism.”

4. Work that Feels Meaningless

“People need to see the impact of the work they do,” says cSoft CEO Chiamala Aravamudhan. “If they can’t clearly see why they’re doing something or if the work is mind-numbing and repetitive, they quickly lose interest in what they’re doing.”

Some of this work involves completing paperwork, scheduling appointments or making follow-up calls, and other administrative tasks.

“In healthcare, many administrative tasks take away from the actual work that health professionals are committed to, i.e. patient care and recovery. When they can be allowed to focus on that, burnout levels also come down alongside.”

B.2 – Lifestyle Choices

1. Unhealthy Sleeping Patterns

7 to 8 hours of sleep a day – there’s no getting around this because the human body requires sleep for normal functioning. The irony here is that doctors recommend a minimum of 7 hours a night to all their patients.

2. Inadequate Exercise

Another dictate for ensuring good health and keeping burnout away that healthcare workers share with their own patients, but are often not able to follow themselves. 30 minutes of exercise, 5 times a week leads to a significant improvement in people’s physical, emotional, and mental well being.

So, if people suspect burnout creeping up on them, one of the first factors to review should also be the amount of exercise they get in a day or week.

3. Poor Diet

“As a healthcare worker, poor eating habits begin right in medical school” says Dr. Amit Agarwal. “We’re so used to moving quickly and having so much to do, we learn to eat whatever we can find easily and eat it on the go. Not surprisingly, most of this food is rich in refined carbs, refined sugar, and refined oils. It’s not the nutrition we need to function at our best”

4. Not Enough Time or Space to Reset Mentally

Did you know Indians are notorious for not taking vacations? Despite what social media channels show us, surveys of Indian workers reveal that 63% of us don’t take breaks for three months or longer at a stretch. And even if we do, most of us only take 15 days of the 21 allotted to us on average.

According to the Economic Times, we’re the most vacation deprived people in the world, i.e. we’re setting ourselves up for burnout because we don’t create the time or space for a mental reset.

B.3 – Personality Influences

1. Perfectionism

Some people are more prone to high stress because they insist on doing everything “perfectly” which definitely sets them up for faster burnout. “Being in a constant state of high stress is exhausting,” says Dr. Amit.

2. Excessive Negative Tendencies

Some people tend to be excessively negative and are never able to see any aspect of their work or personal lives from a positive perspective, which contributes greatly to their exhaustion levels.

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” – Harvard Health.

Sometimes, all we need to do is alter our perspective to see the same situation with a fresh outlook and frame it positively.

While burnout is not officially classified as a medical syndrome as yet, it is a very real phenomenon and more widespread than we can see on the surface. And burnout must be addressed institutionally as much as it must be addressed by people on an individual level.

    How to deal with extreme stress

    As many doctors would agree, we need to take better care of our care providers because they have shown up for us – and continue to show up for us – through the darkest of their days. And ours.

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