The Age of Burnout and How to Fight Back

Overworking is the new badge of honour for many professionals nowadays. The longer we stay at work and the more we do, the more impressive we feel. Even when we aren’t at work, we are still somehow connected. Be it through our devices or our unrelenting standards to do and be our best. Many jobs require sustained mental and physical exertion that leads to exhaustion, disconnection and leaves us demotivated. 

In recent times, the amount we work has increased as we work longer hours or make ourselves available at home and on weekends. As a result, professionals have never been this stressed, sleep-deprived, unhealthy and unproductive. This is the age of burnout. 

Anyone who is part of today’s modern workplace should expect burnout to be one of the most significant health and wellbeing risks they will face. Workplace stress has created a high incidence of employee turnover and staff absenteeism in the workforce. In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially classified burnout as a major global health challenge. 

This article will cover:

  • What burnout is
  • Why we get burnt out
  • The implications of burnout for professionals and teachers
  • My four-pronged approach for the prevention of and remedy for professional burnout
  • How leaders can work to reduce staff burnout

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged feeling of stress and frustration.” Burnout today is widely recognised as a legitimate medical disorder (1,2). Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term in the ’70s. He described it as the emotional dysregulation and depletion commonly experienced by those in service or helping professions such as medicine and teaching. As a teacher and school leader myself, I’ve experienced burnout and have witnessed it in many of my coworkers. In today’s modern world, many people of many professions experience symptoms and characteristics of burnout as their lives get busier and more demanding by the day.

“Burnout happens when you avoid being human for too long.”

The characteristics of burnout are: (3, 4) (5, 6)

  • Overwhelming exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism, along with frustration and anger that lead to detachment from your job
  • A sense of failure or ineffectiveness
  • Reduction of personal achievement, defined as “a state of doubt of the real capabilities of the individual.”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Impacted health outcomes (see below)

The implications of burnout for our health, wellbeing, and workplace

Burnout affects anyone of any occupation and, when experienced, can lead to a range of adverse consequences to our health and professional lives. 

Chronic stress can lead to physical health complications and is a significant predictor of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, hormonal imbalances, skin irritations, autoimmune flare-ups, thyroid issues, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and poor blood sugar control (7) and even death in those under the age of 45. In addition, research notes that it can lead to ruined personal relationships, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse. 

Burnout reduces our work performance. It rewires the brain, making you less resilient to any subsequent stressors, and links have been made with brain volume reductions and altered brain function. (8, 9, 10) Alarmingly, recent studies suggest that it can be causing our somewhat primitive brains to lose function. Ongoing chronic stress from burnout rewires our neural circuits, making it hard for us to cope with stressful scenarios and eventually leading to distinctive changes in brain anatomy and cognition. (11, 12, 13, 14)

From a global perspective, burnout is drastically impacting schools and organisations; more staff are taking time off, extended breaks, workplace compensation claims and leaving the profession – all leading to impacted outcomes in schools and organisations.

Why do we get burnt out?

How did we get here? How did we go from being a species that operated intuitively – seeking food, connection, and mindfulness in their day-to-day, to one that seeks satisfaction (almost unsuccessfully) through work, current affairs, and feelings of “success?”

Technology means we’re always connected

From a technology standpoint, we can see that the advancement in communication systems and connection to others all around the globe has impacted our ability to be present and switch off. Work is hard to escape when we hear the ping of a phone notification or when we check our emails. Our bosses and coworkers can call us during dinner time or on our days off. This slow encroachment on our personal lives and lack of boundaries as we try to please has given others permission to take over our downtime. 

Similarly, technology has invaded our privacy in all four corners of the world. Upsetting content reaches us with unprecedented haste and urgency. While we feel it is our duty to know what is happening in the world, this constant drip of upsetting content is only activating our primal fight or flight response. When really, we should be switching off and focusing on the faces in front of us. 

Social media scrolling creates an unrealistic expectation of ourselves – one of perfectionism (an impossible feat). We admire the filtered photos of others and marvel at the edited aspects of their lives, which fuels our need to do and be better when we likely have everything we need in front of us.

An unhealthy obsession with perfection

Foundationally though, many of us have been bred from micromanaged childhoods as we drifted further away from our instinctual and natural states and more to the modern way of life, a financially uncertain world, where many parents grew anxious about their child’s future career and education prospects. 

The focus has shifted from enjoyment to accomplishment, and fun has taken second place to personal improvement. Our struggles with career and life burnout are the result of hypervigilant parenting or poor parenting (where we just wanted to be noticed and made to feel worthy). 

These types of upbringings (and likely many more) have left us obsessed with the idea that hard work and being ultra-impressive equals success, worthiness, and love.

Burnout and teaching staff

Research suggests that more than 58% percent of teachers experience high stress or burnout (now more so than ever with Covid and home learning), with many leaving the profession in just the first five years on the job. In addition, many teachers today deal with working conditions like occupational violence, an increase in students with learning difficulties and disabilities, staff shortage, students experiencing trauma, challenging parents, a global pandemic, etc.

With so many teachers either leaving the profession or showing up to work suffering the effects of burnout, the impact can be detrimental to the wellbeing and learning outcomes of students in schools. 

As role models and co-regulators of emotions, our wellbeing matters!

“While you’re putting your energy into creating a positive mental health environment for children and young people, it’s also important to focus on your wellbeing and that of your colleagues.”

– Beyond Blue

An integrated approach to managing burnout

As burnout becomes an apparent and widespread problem across the workforce, we can see that there is no quick and easy fix. Burnout prevention and intervention requires you to develop your resilience and create a career fueled by sustainable growth instead of chronic stress. 

As a fierce believer in integrated health and wellbeing management, it may come as no surprise that my approach to preventing and managing burnout takes into account all dimensions of wellbeing.

Without systems to improve each of these areas, your attempts to manage or prevent impeding burnout will be futile.

Managing burnout involves developing knowledge and skills and adopting practices across these four key areas: 

  1. Look after your physical self with a focus on good nutrition, movement, sleep, and recovery. All have been linked to improved cognitive function, emotional regulation, memory, productivity, and of course, overall health. 
  2. Calm your nervous system with relaxation and mindfulness to improve rationality, self-awareness, problem-solving, and feelings of joy. All of which are important for preventing and managing stress and burnout. Without clarity of thought, we are less likely to be and feel resilient to challenges.
  3. Improve your organisation systems, routine structure, and productivity. Studies have shown that working harder and longer doesn’t automatically equal better quality work. In fact, our productivity decreases with longer work hours which only increases the chances for burnout. Finding ways to work smarter, implement routines, set goals, organise your time, and delegate tasks can drastically diminish feelings of overwhelm. 
  4. Seek and surround yourself with a support network. Humans are social creatures who rely on others. Developing better connections and relationships with coworkers and loved ones and building a network of people and practitioners to “fill the gaps” can help us on our path to beating burnout and preventing mounting future stressors.

Review your overall wellbeing using this ‘Web of Wellbeing Activity’ . In next week’s article – learn, develop and grow across each of these areas with my 22 ways to prevent and beat burnout.

Leadership responsibilities when responding to staff burnout

We can help staff to avoid burnout in the workplace with a change in culture. This involves putting people, their wellbeing and relationships first and developing emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to put a self-care band-aid on a toxic work environment. The leaders are responsible for creating systemic change. 

Leaders can work to create workplaces where employees can thrive using the PERMA(H) model; by adopting the traits of a high-quality leader and involving staff in the vision setting process, by giving them a sense of autonomy, maintaining clear communication, setting clear expectations, and providing adequate training and resources – leaders can promote positive emotions which ultimately leads to better outcomes and results. 

Conclusion

Ensuring our wellbeing involves approaching it from many angles – a balance of nourishment, work, rest, play, and planning. Unfortunately, these essential components are sometimes forgotten in a culture that values overworking. 

Resilience isn’t about toughing it out or having grit at all hours of the day. Instead, it’s about taking care of yourself and your coworkers, making space for vulnerability, getting organised, tuning into your thoughts and emotions, and learning to ask for help. It’s also about building positive communities at work and finding connections with other people. 

Leaders have just as big a role to play in preventing and managing employee burnout. They can do this by creating workplaces where staff feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. 

Looking to build your support network and receive tailored advice and guidance to begin reducing your feelings of overwhelm and burnout? Explore my Individual Wellness Coaching or School Wellbeing Consulting services to support whole school staff wellbeing.

Sources

  1. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain
  2. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/14/5-ways-workers-can-avoid-employee-burnout.html
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222495735_Prevention_of_burnout_New_perspectives
  5. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2319714518767805
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
  7. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185781
  8. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain
  9. https://www.businessinsider.com/brain-effects-of-job-burnout-2015-7
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26653297
  11. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5627926/
  13. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain
  14. Book: Rest – Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  15. Book: Can’t even: How Millennials became the burnt out generation. Anne Helen Petersen
  16. Book: Overworked and overwhelmed – Scott Ebling
  17. Book: Pause – Rachel Omeara 
  18. Book: The Burnout Fic – Jacinta Jiminez
  19. Book: I’m so Effing Tired – Amy Shah

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