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What's work burnout syndrome ?

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

Iva Vukusic - Clinical Psychologist | LifeWorks

Work burn out syndrome stands for a progressive loss of will, energy and meaningfulness of one's work as a result of frustration and stress at the workplace. Long term exposure to multiple stressors at work leads to it. Stressful situation not being resolved, adjustment not possible, or situation remaining unchanged will eventually result in a loss spiral.

Stress and burnout are considered the epidemics of modern society. Their importance to physical health and work disability has been acknowledged worldwide. Syndrome is experienced in many occupations where the work pace has increased, and the demands of work have rapidly grown. It is present among managers, entrepreneurs, white- and blue-collar workers.

"Work burnout is a consequence of reciprocal relationship of perceived disparity between the demands of the job and the resources (both material and emotional) that are available to an employee."

Antecedents of burnout are usually divided into organizational, occupational, and individual.

Characteristics of people that are prone to burnout are tendency to perfectionism, idealization of profession, high expectations, taking too much responsibility, having difficulties setting boundaries (e.g. refusing tasks). Personality factors such as neuroticism, excessive shyness, inflexibility, and poor stress management skills, all contribute to how one is affected by stress on the job.

Professionals who are involved in daily interpersonal interactions and carry high level of responsibility are more vulnerable to burnout, as well as laborers who work under harsh environmental conditions. Although the symptoms of burnout may be similar for different groups of people, the etiology of burnout may differ between organizational groups.

Organizational factors that contribute to burnout are too much of a demand, time pressure, poor organization of work, lack of support (from colleagues, superiors), impaired relationships within the organization, low pay, insecure employment or shift-work. The stressful constellations of work instability and high effort are deadly combination. Lack of control over one’s job means lack of control over important resources and involvement in decision making, resulting in uncertainty and insecurity, which increase stress. Long or unpredictable hours, having too many responsibilities, fast pace, too many phone calls, dealing with constant crises and supervising too many people or having broad multifaceted job descriptions are characteristics of a work overload. Also, disengagement has been associated with saturation and the experience of monotony. Workers want to know expectations of the organization, job requirements, any physical and psychological dangers. Lack of clear, consistent information can result in distress. In numerous studies, role conflict and role ambiguity have been associated with low job satisfaction, frustration, decreased trust and respect, low confidence in the organization, morale problems and high degrees of stress. Role conflict may be defined as the simultaneous occurrence of two or more opposing pressures such that a response to one makes compliance with the other impossible. The most frequent role conflicts are those between the individual's values and those of the superior or the organization; the conflict between the demands of the work place and the worker's personal life; and the conflict between worker abilities and organizational expectations. Role ambiguity may be defined as a lack of clarity about the job, that is, a discrepancy between the information available to the employee and that which is required for successful job performance. Several different areas of job training are necessary to prevent occupational distress. The most obvious area is adequate initial preparation. Training and competencies are necessary to bolster confidence, as well as to allow the worker to get through each day without unnecessary dependence upon others or upon reference materials. On-the-job training is also necessary as technology advances. Secondly, training in communications skills is necessary in order to facilitate the ability of the employee to relate successfully with supervisors, fellow workers, and recipients of services or products. Finally, one needs to be taught how to deal with stress. Everyone needs to learn methods of coping with the variety of stressors faced each day.

Burnout is generally characterized by:
  1. some degree of physical and emotional exhaustion

  2. socially dysfunctional behavior, particularly distancing from co-workers

  3. suffering strong, negative feelings toward the self and the environment

  4. organizational inefficiency through decreased output and poor morale

Work burnout phases

  1. Honeymoon phase: worker is filled with enthusiasm, job makes him fulfilled, no task is overwhelming

  2. Reality phase: worker realizes that job is not perfect, boss imposes more of harder tasks, worker works harder, makes effort, but disappointment and frustration come daily. Worker starts to notice gossiping and imputations, worker leaves job later and overtime hours are not paid. Worker realizes that job doesn’t satisfy him neither socially nor financially.

  3. Disappointment phase: worker is in a vicious circle- tired and nervous, loses or gains weight rapidly, has sleeping problems, he is angry and blames others for what is happening to him. He starts to be openly critical of superiors and colleagues, he feels hopeless. Anxiety and depression become part of his daily life. He often falls sick.

  4. Alarm phase: he is exhausted, has feeling of constant failure, low self-confidence, incapable of making any changes in his life. His life seems meaningless, he is in chronic despair. Condition in this phase is serious and can lead to serious consequences.

Burnout develops gradually. If not treated, it leads to poor health and psychological disorders. The effects of burnout may be physiologically mediated through impairment of the immunological system or unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol consumption or impaired sleep. Burnout affect health physiologically by increasing allostatic load, which then affects cognitive, autonomic, and neuroendocrine functioning. Allostasis refers to the active process by which the body responds to daily events and maintains homeostasis. Allostatic overload represents a chronic “wear and tear” situation. Burnout syndrome is associated with several cardiovascular disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, and type 2 diabetes. Burnout has also been linked to several psychosocial antecedents of depressive disorders, anxiety, and alcohol-related disorders.

Recovery from severe burnout has also been found to be slow. This means that people who suffer from burnout usually need long sickness absence leaves in order to recover, and some of them may never return to work.

It is essential to pay attention to the first signs of fatigue and exhaustion and react before it is too late. Engaging in activities we love, socializing with friends, separating work and leisure, relaxation, healthy eating and quality dreams are the most important in preventing burnout. For those who find their work as central part of their lives, finding fulfillment from work is very important for the development of self-efficacy.

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