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Understanding Burnout (So you can prevent it)



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If you work a 9-5 job, you've probably heard the word ‘burnout’ being used often. In fact, some people refer to September and the months after as ‘burnout season’. While exhaustion is an important symptom of burnout, it’s not the only marker. In this article, we unpack burnout to get a better understanding of how it affects you emotionally and psychologically.


While many definitions of burnout exist, our favourite is from Maslach & Leiter which states:


Burnout is a psychological syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which is experienced in response to chronic job stressors.”



In order for us to fully unpack and understand burnout, let’s define its key concepts found within its definition and jump right into the research around this phenomenon so we can figure out how to safeguard against it.



Exhaustion is the “feelings of being overextended and depleted of one’s emotional and physical resources.” Exhaustion is considered as the individual stress dimension of burnout. Then we have cynicism.


Cynicism is a “negative, callous, or excessively detached response to various aspects of the job.” We become cynical as a response to the overload in emotional exhaustion. It’s important to note that cynicism at first is self-protection; a way of distancing you from your emotional concerns through detachment. The problem with detachment is, it can lead to dehumanisation. Cynicism is therefore the component that represents the interpersonal dimension of burnout


Finally, there’s inefficacy. Inefficacy is defined as “feelings of incompetence and lack of achievement in work”. Feelings of inefficacy lead you questioning your own ability to perform in your job and result in a self-imposed sense of failure. The inefficacy component represents the self-evaluation dimension of burnout.


According to research, relationships are at the heart of burnout. Your colleagues, clients or managers either contribute to the emotional strain or alleviate it. Subsequently, these relationships are most at risk when you are burnt out.


What is the difference between burnout and stress?


Stress reactions are usually a direct response to an identifiable, specific incident while burnout is a cumulative stress reaction to ongoing stressors in the workplace.


Below is a list of 6 key factors in the workplace that put individuals at risk of burnout:


- Workload

- Control

- Reward

- Community

- Fairness

- Values



The opposite of burnout is engagement at work. This is characterised by things like having energy, getting involved in work activities and efficiency in your role. There are many strategies geared at combating burnout or preventing it all together however what is critical to understand is, burnout is not the result of an individual’s inability to manage stress or work pressures but rather the accumulation of stress so much so that it is now no longer unbearable. An individual may try to deploy self-care techniques to alleviate stress and reduce emotional strain however combating burnout is as much an organisational task as it is individual.


If you found this article helpful, share it in your networks!


To healthier working environments and experiences.


Love MPL.


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