Even before the endless Zoom calls and professional upheaval the pandemic wrought in 2020, the World Health Organization recognized burnout in 2019 as a “syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the mostly widely accepted evaluation tool, describes burnout as emotional and often physical exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. For burned out high-performing executives like Kim*, completing basic tasks or enduring another week at her job seemed next to impossible. “COVID-19 had me working 16-hour days, 7 days a week for months on end.” said Kim*, an executive. “By the end, it was literally taking me hours to write one email because I couldn’t concentrate. Rather than solving and working through problems, I was getting angry on Zoom calls at my colleagues for minor things and I would start randomly crying in the middle of the workday. Work became something I had to survive, rather than a place where I thrived.”
Kim’s experience may sound all too familiar for professionals who lived through a global pandemic. But burnout is not just fatigue and a bad day at the office. It is a serious condition that can take up to 2 years to recover from if left untreated and disrupts not only individuals, but also marriages, families and organizations and society.
In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger created a list of the key stages of burnout. Burnout does not necessarily progress in the same order for everyone. Nor does it only apply to our professional lives. Parenting burnout, marital or relationship burnout can also experience the following stages in any order.
People can also experience multiple forms of burnout at the same time. In fact, one form of burnout may cause burnout in other areas of life, especially in more advanced cases. “I found that I was losing my temper more frequently with my children, and my husband due to the constant work stress,” said Kim about her experience with burnout. “It wasn’t until my husband pointed out how short my temper was, that I decided something had to change.”
Essential workers like healthcare providers are especially prone to extreme work-related stress. Statistics vary, but some sources state that 50%+ of providers are burned out, (AHRQ, AJMA), while other surveys (CHG Healthcare) provide burnout figures as high as 80%. For skilled clinicians and professionals alike, these symptoms of burnout syndrome can lead to depression, divorce, substance abuse, poor customer satisfaction, poor working relationships, and attrition. Angie Whitaker, who has spent 33 years in healthcare as an ICU nurse before burnout forced a career change said, “The harder part was the last year for me. I would sit in my car and cry before my shift.”
If not treated, burnout eventually affects everyone. 92% of clinicians surveyed in a 2019 survey by Spok responded that burnout syndrome in clinicians is a public health crisis. This is just one example of one profession. As burnout is occurring in every industry, the ripple effects on society as a whole become magnified in ways we have yet to comprehend.
Burnout is more than just being tired. It is a complex issue that can occur in just a few months of chronic stress but can take as long as two years to feel better according to Dr. Geri Puleo, who believes that burnout is similar to PTSD. The Mayo foundation identified the most common drivers of burnout and we’ve added a few more from other resources we found.1. Poor leadership
It’s important to understand that not only is burnout reversible, most HR departments prefer to treat employees for burnout, rather than have to deal with massive turnover. It’s common to feel ashamed while struggling with a mental health issue, but getting treatment for burnout not only results in better outcomes for the individual, but for the organization as well. Before you quit your job, consider exploring some of the ways that you can recover from burnout.
Here are some things to consider before exploring new career options:
1. Self-care – spend the time and effort to help yourself be your best. That includes practicing good sleep hygiene, getting regular exercise, eating nutritious food, and giving yourself time to think, reflect, or meditate on a daily basis. Self-care allows caretakers to care for others.
2. Examine your career closely and identify stressors – take a close look at your current role and place of employment. Find what you do enjoy about your current situation as well as what causes you high levels of stress. Then discuss this with your leadership and try to include more of the parts you enjoy into your role. This may take some realism and creativity as there aren’t always jobs available that can meet your needs immediately.
3. Build a support network – having a strong social network has been proven to improve mental health and decrease burnout. Support can come from within your industry or from friends and family. Also consider mentorship, which has been shown to improve the satisfaction of both participants.
4. Stay engaged or re-engage – try and set aside any cynicism that may have crept into your work and do not share that cynicism with colleagues. Find other outlets to express those emotions outside of work such as with a friend, a therapist or an executive coach. Strive to find the enthusiasm and energy that you once had for your work.
5. Work towards increasing your resilience – The best way to increase resilience, or our ability to recover quickly from difficult and stressful situations, is to experience them. The more you reach beyond your comfort zone and achieve goals, the more our mind shifts to believe that any obstacle can be overcome. A mentor can help greatly in this capacity as well. Watching how a respected colleague stays calm and composed under very stressful situations can be a great learning tool.
6. Seek professional help: If the burnout has progressed beyond the 13 stages, it may be time to seek professional help from a mental health provider. Therapy, medication, or other short-term treatments may be the boost needed to help a professional be able to take on the other 5 steps. Because burnout so closely resembles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a similar treatment approach can help professionals recover faster. Typically, psychotherapy combined with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or Ketamine infusions have shown promising results for burnout, and some treatments can help professionals recover in as little as a few weeks. “For me, I was afraid after quitting my job that I would be as burned out in my next job as I was in my current one. Ketamine was the best option because I didn’t have months to recover. Combined with therapy, I was able to process the trauma of the last year and start my job feeling refreshed and able to perform again at the level I was at before the pandemic,” said Kim*. “I still go to therapy to handle the stress but overall, three weeks of Ketamine treatment, lifestyle changes, and therapy helped me regain my footing after a particularly tough year.”
The ripple effects of our personal burnout impacts more than just an individual. As we can see from clinicians, our public health will be impacted if burnout isn’t more widely acknowledged and treated early enough. It’s important that professionals take a moment to examine their own mental state and ask, “Am I experiencing the stages of burnout? Am I at or beyond Compassion Fatigue?” Awareness is just a first step. Redesigning workplaces of the future, destigmatizing mental health issues, and expanding access to treatment are all steps we need to keep our businesses and ourselves healthy and thriving.
Alleviant Health Centers of Denver is an integrative psychiatry clinic offering services to both children and adults. We are dedicated to shifting the focus of mental healthcare in the United States from medication-dependent care to a holistic, integrated approach addressing the whole person. We are proud to be one of the few BIPOC clinics in the state and strive to destigmatize mental healthcare in our communities and provide innovative, mental health support to everyone. If you or anyone you know would like to discuss treatment options for burnout, please don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with one of our psychiatrists at http://alleviant.com/Denver/ or watch our YouTube series on burnout here: http://bit.ly/recoveryfromburnout.