Workplace Stress and Burnout

In the relentless pace of modern life, burnout has emerged as a silent epidemic, often overlooked yet profoundly impactful. The phenomenon of burnout refers to a psychosocial syndrome made up of emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment as a result of chronic workplace stress (Hill & Curran, 2016). This problem has become much more common since COVID-19. Recent studies show that workplace health is more important now than it ever has been (Edú-Valsania et al., 2022). Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.

What does burnout look like?

Let me use an example to explain:
Imagine you have just received a new smartphone. Initially, the phone operates at peak performance, swiftly managing every task with ease. There is excitement, there is ambition, and there is motivation to use this latest piece of tech. You only have a few applications to start with; you become familiar with how to use them and they operate well with ease. But over time, as the battery drains without respite, as new applications take up more and more of the phone’s capacity, it starts to falter. The phone becomes slow, unresponsive, and prone to crashing. Notifications become overwhelming. Your screen time becomes excessive. No matter how many apps you close or how much you try to optimise its performance, the device cannot recover without being powered off, recharged, and operated in a way in which demands do not exceed its capacity.

Similarly, people experiencing burnout have been running on empty. Without a period of genuine rest and disconnection, their ability to perform well in both work and professional life diminishes significantly. It’s not that people are actively and willingly choosing to take on more than they can handle. Rather, their internalised value structures, informed by early childhood experience, are influencing their current decision-making processes (whether they are aware of it or not).

The way we use our time is integral to how we define ourselves. If sociocultural environments (in other words, our interpersonal systems) value busyness, productivity, financial status, and overload as a worthy sense of self, then that is likely to influence our decisions in everyday life. In some circles, there’s an unspoken rule that if you’re not busy, you’re not doing enough, which can compel people to overcommit and prioritise work over well-being. Over time, lack of support, work overload, role conflict, role ambiguity, financial distress, and absence of existential significance related to occupation status can all contribute to ‘burning out’ (Kaminski, 2020).

Causes of Burnout

Self-criticism, perfectionism, an inflated sense of responsibility, feelings of inadequacy, and stress are interrelated factors that can contribute to a spiralling path that leads to burnout.

Self-Criticism: When someone engages in harsh self-criticism, they are more likely to set unrealistic standards for themselves. This critical internal dialogue can create a persistent sense of failure, as they perceive themselves as never living up to their own expectations.

Perfectionism: Perfectionists often strive for flawless performance and set excessively high goals. While the drive to excel can be positive, it becomes detrimental when someone fixates on imperfections and overextends themselves to achieve an unattainable ideal. This can result in a never-ending cycle of effort without satisfaction, as the goalposts of ‘perfect’ are always moving.

Sense of Responsibility: An excessive sense of responsibility can make a person feel they are the only one capable of handling certain tasks or that everything depends on their personal effort. This can lead to taking on too much, overcommitting, and neglecting personal needs, as they prioritise their perceived duties over their well-being.

Feeling Not Good Enough: Feelings of inadequacy often stem from self-criticism and perfectionism. When someone believes they are not meeting the standards they or others have set, they might push themselves harder in an attempt to compensate. This can exacerbate stress, as their efforts seem to never be enough, reinforcing the belief in their inadequacy.

Stress: Chronic stress is the response to continued high demands that are perceived as threatening or overwhelming. When someone constantly criticises themself, aims for perfection, feels overly responsible, is financially disadvantaged, and believes they are not good enough, a state of continuous stress.

Financial stress is an added burden. Worrying about money a lot can make burnout more likely. When someone is under financial pressure, they may feel compelled to work longer hours, take on multiple jobs, or accept higher levels of responsibility without adequate compensation or support. This constant worry about finances can create a background of chronic stress that consumes mental energy, leaving the person less capable of managing the demands of work and life. Stress eats up vast amounts of mental and physical resources, leaving less available for recuperation and resilience.

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