Everyone experiences what is known as “a bad mood” from time to time. Sometimes we also feel tired, irritable, or demotivated. These feelings may simply indicate that we need to take a break and clear our heads. However, when we don’t shake off these negative manifestations even after a good rest, it can be a sign of a bigger problem. It could be what is known as burnout syndrome. How can we recognize it? How can we prevent it? Who is most commonly affected by it? And can burnout syndrome be treated? Let’s try to find answers to these questions.
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What is burnout syndrome?
There are quite a few definitions of the so-called burnout syndrome. However, they all point to one key characteristic that makes it easier to identify whether or not this problem affects you. Burnout syndrome is a de facto state of chronic or persistent stress. This condition leads to feelings of exhaustion both physical and emotional. People with burnout syndrome are often tired, seemingly “tasteless and odorless”, often display cynicism, and usually have an outbreak of feelings of inferiority and lack of accomplishment. They feel like a mouse running in a closed, rotating cylinder.
But beware, not every fatigue, exhaustion or reluctance to do anything must immediately mean that you have developed burnout syndrome. It is always important to be aware of whether your exhaustion came on somehow “legitimately” after some tremendous physical or mental exertion, or whether you are in this state sort of on your own, without any particularly strenuous activity behind you. What is important in burnout syndrome is the chronicity, or rather the longevity of your unhappy state.
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The burnout syndrome was first described in 1974 by the German-born American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger in his article Staff burnout, published in the Journal of Social Issues. As a result, burnout syndrome has created a huge interest among psychologists, leading to a detailed description of the cause, development and consequences as well as prevention of the disease.
Yes, it is indeed a disease, albeit a relatively “young” one. Burnout syndrome was only classified as a disease by the World Health Organization in May 2019. However, some countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have recognised burnout syndrome as a disease before.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
So how do you distinguish between normal fatigue or a bad mood and burnout syndrome? Let’s go through the typical symptoms of this condition. The important thing to remember is that burnout syndrome is not a virus or a broken arm. It’s not a condition that comes on overnight, suddenly, but it is the result of a longer-term development. That makes burnout all the more insidious. What’s more, it is often underestimated and the fact that you are going through a bad time right now is downplayed, explained away by the fact that you can’t just keep getting better or that “it will pass”.
In the early stages of burnout syndrome, the individual usually experiences chronic fatigue. The person so affected feels a lack of energy and feels exhausted most days. This condition does not improve, and often even intensifies, and in the last stages the person feels physically and emotionally exhausted and sometimes worries only about what the next day will bring. Fear of tomorrow starts to take over.
Insomnia goes hand in hand with chronic fatigue. So much so that there is a direct proportionality between the two phenomena. So the more exhausted, the more insomnia. So if you think that you can overcome the fatigue of the working week with a good night’s sleep at the weekend, you are usually mistaken. The body is already under so much stress that it can hardly switch off even on rest days and is always on the alert, what if it suddenly needs to do something, call someone, write or just catch up. In the early stages of burnout syndrome, insomnia manifests itself only in difficulty falling asleep or sleep disturbance on one or two days a week. In the later stages, insomnia is already variable.
Other symptoms of early burnout include forgetfulness, impaired concentration or inattention. Later on, however, the problems can accumulate until you reach a stage where you are no longer able to finish your work and things start to fall apart. Which exacerbates all the other symptoms of burnout.
If you get to the stage where you’re struggling to do your job effectively, it’s not far to get angry. At first, it may just be irritability and increased tension in your relationships with other people. Then there may be outbursts of despair, arguments or excesses both at home and in the workplace. If you get to the point where you have thoughts of violent acts, whether towards co-workers or family members, you should seek professional help immediately.
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Burnout syndrome can also manifest itself in a loss of joy or pessimism. The loss of joy is usually very mild at first, resulting, for example, in not wanting to go to work. But gradually, the ‘unhappiness’ can spill over into other areas of your life, including leisure time with friends or family. At the same time, you become increasingly pessimistic about everything. You lose motivation, trust in your co-workers, family members and ultimately yourself, which sooner or later results in reduced productivity, poorer work performance or even loss of employment. On top of this, feelings of apathy and hopelessness build up until you reach a point where you can no longer cope with burnout on your own. There may be more symptoms of burnout, but the ones described above are among the most typical and therefore the most common.
Burnout syndrome – causes
It could be said that the immediate cause of burnout syndrome is also contained in its definition: chronic stress. The question, then, is what is the cause of chronic, or rather permanent, stress that can drive us to the edge of our strength.
Chronic stress most often stems from permanent pressure to perform at work. We can create this pressure on ourselves, usually when we are worried about losing our jobs, or someone else can create it on us. Usually a supervisor (or supervisors), but it can also be colleagues at work who are not in a relationship of superiority or subordination. Sometimes the pressure can be exerted by members of our household, as a result of the roles we play in the household or the tasks we have to perform.
Ultimately, however, the source of the performance pressure described above is often ourselves. This is because we do not know how to say ‘NO’. This attitude stems from our desire not to let the other person down and to meet them as much as possible. Saying “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this for this or that reason” is very difficult and challenging for this type of person. It is easier for them to promise to comply and then do everything possible to keep their word. But in doing so they put too much on themselves, often overestimating their strength, but even this does not deter them from their unceasing efforts to do what they have promised.
According to various studies, burnout syndrome affects people whose work is based on human contact the most. Typically, top managers, or people in management positions in general, are the most likely to burn out; farmers or foresters are the least likely to suffer from burnout.
The statistics in this area are interesting. According to an extensive scientific study carried out in the Czech Republic seven years ago, approximately one in five Czech citizens suffers from burnout syndrome. Thirty-four per cent of those surveyed felt threatened by this syndrome, and women and younger people were more likely to suffer from it. The most common occupation was professions with a high level of responsibility, in 38 per cent of cases. Regional variability of burnout syndrome was also shown, with the Moravian-Silesian, Liberec and Hradec Kralove regions showing the highest incidence. On the other hand, burnout syndrome affects the inhabitants of the Vysočina region the least, and Prague also recorded a relatively low incidence.
How to treat burnout syndrome and what are self-help methods?
As with all types of illnesses, prevention is the best way to deal with burnout syndrome. That is, doing everything possible to avoid burnout syndrome. Since we know what the source and cause of burnout is, we practically have a guide in hand on how to prevent burnout. Preventive measures include: organising work tasks properly, setting realistic goals and creating realistic expectations, making enough time for hobbies, family and friends, following a healthy lifestyle, learning to say “no” whenever you feel too much pressure, resting physically and mentally, trying to enjoy the little things, and so on.
But if you already fall into burnout syndrome, all is not lost. Although the way out is a bit more complicated than preventing yourself from going down the road to burnout syndrome in the first place. If you’ve managed to catch the early signs that you’re burning out, prevention recommendations could help. If you don’t know what to do, it’s better to seek help from a professional, i.e. a psychologist or psychotherapist.
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The treatment of burnout syndrome involves methods that try to change the patient’s attitude towards work. These include existential psychotherapy, transformational systems therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy. During treatment, the patient, in collaboration with the doctor, should focus not only on eliminating the acute symptoms of burnout, but also on gaining a more realistic approach to life or work.
Burnout syndrome – don’t lose hope
As mentioned before, burnout syndrome can affect practically anyone, although the likelihood may be higher for some individuals and lower for others. The key is to take preventive measures to avoid being affected by this relatively “young” mental illness. Therefore, it is important to set realistic goals, strive to organize your time well, avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, learn to recognize your limits, and say “no.” Remember that there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries, and no one will automatically punish you when you politely express that something is beyond your capabilities, that you are currently overwhelmed, or when you ask for a task to be assigned to someone else. We are humans, not robots.