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Professional burnout – what is it, what are the causes and how to prevent it?

At the turn of 2020, Polish media circulated the news that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had recognised occupational burnout as a medical condition and included it in the newest International Classification of Diseases ICD-11.

Although these reports were erroneous (occupational burnout was identified by WHO as one of the factors that can affect health – but by no means was it recognised as a medical condition), they produced the unexpected benefit of increased interest in the syndrome. Occupational burnout deserves attention because of its high prevalence (research suggests that up to one in two Polish doctors may manifest high levels of occupational burnout - cf. Makara-Studzińska et al., 2019) as well as the costs it imposes on both employees and employers (in terms of decreased efficiency or employee absenteeism). This paper focuses on the essence of occupational burnout - its symptoms and causes. In addition, it describes selected strategies aimed at the syndrome prevention.

What is professional burnout?

Although the term burnout was not introduced into the scientific literature until the second half of the 20th century, the phenomenon of a gradual loss of enthusiasm for work had long been known. As early as in the 4th century, the term acedia (Greek for grief, dissatisfaction) was used to describe a state of weariness and indifference developing in monks. Acedia was thought to be responsible for monks losing their sense of purpose and ceasing to engage in useful activities (Finlay-Jones, 1983).

The modern understanding of the term professional burnout owes much to Herbert Freudenberger (1974), an American psychologist who used it in the 1970s to describe what happened to highly committed volunteers who did not get the results they expected despite their dedication to work. At the time, the word burnout was applied in a colloquial jargon to describe debilitating effects of a long-term use of a psychoactive substance on the body. Freudenberger borrowed the term noting many parallels between what happens to staff in drug rehab centres as their life energy becomes depleted and the condition of their clients. 

Parallel to Freudenberger, a researcher from the University of California Berkeley, Christina Maslach interviewed professionals from the social services sector. She was interested in how they dealt with negative emotions at work. She noticed that nurses, doctors or teachers under prolonged stress developed a characteristic syndrome consisting of a triad of symptoms (Maslach and Jackson, 1981). The first was emotional exhaustion, i.e. the feeling of emptiness and lack of strength. The next was depersonalisation, which involved reacting indifferently, callously or negatively to other people. And finally, the third component was a reduced sense of personal achievement, i.e. a negative evaluation of one’s own achievements. The three-component definition of professional burnout proposed by Maslach had a huge impact on the subsequent research into the syndrome and makes now one of the most popular approaches to the phenomenon. This is reflected in the fact that the aforementioned definition of occupational burnout created by the WHO and included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) emphasises the same three components.

What is the cause of burnout? 

The causes of burnout are divided into two groups: work-related factors and factors related to the employee’s personality, predispositions, beliefs and attitudes.

Regarding the work environment, the following elements are indicated to increase the risk of burnout (Maslach and Leiter, 2011): work overload (e.g. too much work to be done in too little time), lack of control and decision-making (being subject to rigid monitoring and/or working in chaotic conditions), lack of recognition (including inadequate remuneration, lack of feedback on the quality of work), recurring work tensions and conflicts and unfair treatment (e.g. bias in the evaluation or remuneration of employees). Employees who are forced to act against their values - e.g. dishonestly, for whom the purpose of their work is not clear or who can see a clear discrepancy between the company’s declared ideals and what takes place in practice - are also at a greater risk of burnout (Tucholska, 2001).

Certain personality characteristics also mean that some employees may be more susceptible to developing the syndrome in question than others. Since the introduction of the concept of professional burnout into psychological literature, it has been emphasised that individuals who are strongly committed to their work and who, at least initially, approach their work with great enthusiasm, are particularly vulnerable to this syndrome (Pines and

Aronson, 1988). For these individuals, work is not just a source of income: they seek fulfilment, they want it to be important and to mean something. They manifest a strong emotional commitment to their job responsibilities, and when it turns out that their aspirations do not match reality they experience a devastating sense of failure leading to burnout (Pines, 2000).

Research suggests that people who exhibit occupational idealism - and therefore have unrealistic expectations of their work - are at a particular risk of burnout (Sęk, 2004). Also perfectionists are at risk as they tend to impose excessive and difficult-to-achieve standards on themselves (Mankowska, 2017). Additionally, people who are characterised by a tendency to respond to difficult situations exhibiting strong negative emotions accompanied by an inability to cope effectively with stress are susceptible to burnout syndrome (Sęk, 2004). As Maslach and Leiter (2020) point out, the risk is also higher for employees whose self-esteem and positive self-image are closely linked to success and performance at work. Burnout is also more common in workaholics (Schaufeli et al. 2009).

How can you protect yourself against burnout?

The risk of burnout can be reduced in two ways: by making changes to the work environment (e.g. the organisation of work, remuneration rules or the management style) and/or by developing the right attitude to work and increasing the employee’s competences, including the ability to rest and manage stress. This article focuses primarily on actions that can be undertaken by employees to protect themselves from debilitating effects of stress, while actions within the remit of employers will not be elaborated upon. The strategies described below are particularly effective when incorporated at an early stage of burnout development - when the first warning signs, such as exhaustion, insomnia or feelings of irritability, appear (Maslach, 1993).

Above all, regular rest and adequate recovery after each working day is important in the prevention of burnout (Demerouti, 2015, Maslach and Leiter, 2010). You should not be preoccupied with professional duties during your leisure time (Mankowska, 2017) and maintain the necessary boundaries between work and private life (work-life balance), e.g. switch off your work phone when returning from the office or inform people around you that emails or text messages are only answered within specific time slots.

What is also effective in reducing emotional and mental exhaustion is taking your mind off work in your free time by engaging in pleasant and relaxing activities (Demerouti, 2015). It is useful to find time after work to meet or at least talk on the phone with friends, family members or colleagues as receiving support from others is considered one of the most important protective factors against stress and burnout (Mankowska, 2017). Having close ties helps us to reduce tension as it gives us an opportunity to share with others what is bothering us, look at the situation in a different way than before, and often get specific help or advice.

People who start to notice the first signs of burnout in themselves are also advised to develop non-work interests and take up activities in other areas that can give them a sense of fulfilment. Self-esteem should not be completely dependent on one area of life because then every failure, even the smallest one, hurts it deeply. Focusing on different fields helps us to treat professional matters less personally. This is important because getting overly emotionally involved in matters that do not directly concern us intensifies exhaustion (Mankowska, 2017).

How we interpret different situations makes a big difference, too. Stress often stems from the fact that we tend to perceive events in an overly negative or personal way (Beck et al. 2012). Just because our supervisor raises his or her voice in a conversation with us does not necessarily mean that he or she does not respect or appreciate us. He or she may have just had an unpleasant interaction with a customer, personal problems that make him or her feel out of control at the moment, or simply have a headache. Research suggests that approaching events with a distance and even some humour protects people against negative effects of stress and is associated with less severe burnout symptoms (Ven der Broeck et al., 2012). Additionally, it is worth noting that in everyday life we often impose standards on ourselves that are logically unachievable - e.g. we assume that everyone must like and admire us or that every task we are given must be completed perfectly. It is a good idea to reduce these self-imposed demands on yourself and make them a little more realistic, which may significantly decrease stress levels.

In some situations, you can also address the problem more directly. Even if you are not in a managerial position in a company, to a certain (greater or lesser) extent you can adapt your way of working to your preferences, abilities, motivation or passions. This process is referred to as job crafting (cf. Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001). If you feel overloaded, you can suggest to someone to share your responsibilities (e.g. two teachers teaching the same subject can prepare lesson plans for half of the lessons and then exchange materials) or you can discuss your situation with your manager, who may not be aware of all your tasks and responsibilities and is therefore imposing more. If you do not feel appreciated, you can directly ask for feedback on your work, and if some of your colleagues are conflicted, you can minimise interactions with them. It is worth considering whether you can make small modifications and improvements to your work environment that would make it less oppressive and more rewarding.

However, there are times when, despite active implementation of the above strategies, the burnout process continues. This may mean that more decisive steps are needed and it is time to consider changing an employer. Or perhaps it is worth retraining for another profession that will give you a greater sense of fulfilment? When we spend many years in the same company, we often fall into the sunk cost fallacy (Arkes and Blumer, 1985) - we feel that we have already invested and sacrificed too much in the place, so we are stuck in a pathological environment, even if other, better prospects that would prove beneficial to us in the long run emerge.

Last but not least, if the symptoms we are experiencing are very intense, including an extreme lack of motivation accompanied by a strong sense of helplessness and hopelessness, it is worth seeking professional help. You can opt, for example, for psychotherapy, vocational counselling or training in effective methods of coping with stress. 

Reference literature

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Demerouti, E. (2015). Strategies used by individuals to prevent burnout. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 45(10), 1106-1112.

Finlay-Jones, R. (1983). Disgust with life in general. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 17(2), 149-152.Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff burnout. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.

Makara-Studzińska, M., Załuski, M., Tylec, A., & Panasiuk, L. (2019). Do Polish doctors suffer from occupational burnout syndrome?: an attempt to find an answer: pilot study. Annals of agricultural and environmental medicine, 26(1).

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About the author

Joanna Kłosowska, PhD – assistant professor at the Department of Clinical Psychology of the Jagiellonian University Institute of Psychology. She is a member of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP), the European Association of Clinical Psychology and Psychological Treatment (EACLIPT) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Her research interests include health consequences of stress as well as risk factors and mechanisms contributing to mental health disorders.