“Burnout” is a word commonly used in discussions about pressure and stress. This module will take a closer look at what burnout is, the signs and symptoms, how it should be handled by an individual’s organisation and how it can be prevented in the first place.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of utter exhaustion. Someone suffering burnout will feel as though they have nothing left to give - not simply on a physical level, but also, in an emotional sense. Every difficulty, no matter how minor, takes on great significance. Burnout is a serious risk factor for the development of mental illness.
Signs and symptoms
A key warning sign of impending burnout is elevated levels of chronic stress. Other symptoms are as follows:
Feeling little variation in mood, or your assessment of your day/week – It is normal to have a “bad day” occasionally, but individuals at risk of burnout feel as though every day is a battle, until bedtime.
Persistent mental and physical fatigue – Burnout is exhausting. It means that getting up in the morning becomes a struggle of epic proportions- and making it through to the end of a regular working day, feels almost impossible.
Feelings of apathy – Under stress, most people’s emotions are heightened. They engage with the task at hand and attempt to bring about change. When someone is approaching burnout, they disengage from the task at hand. They begin to wonder what the true purpose of their role or project is.
Loss of wider vision – When a person is stressed, they focus on the problems in front of them. When they are experiencing burnout, they begin to dissociate from, or “check out of” their lives in general. When someone is either burned out or heading for burnout, they often start to feel differently where their work is concerned. Typically, they feel as though everything they do lacks meaning and impact. Even if their work looks meaningful to an outsider, they may feel as though their workdays are merely a series of inane or overwhelming tasks.
Physical signs and symptoms – These correspond with those listed in Module 3. Burnout victims frequently complain of aches, pains, stomach problems, headaches and lowered immunity to infectious disease.
A sense of personality change – Burnout can turn a person into someone they barely recognise. Under prolonged, intense stress, an ordinarily cheerful and hardworking individual, who usually enjoys high levels of job satisfaction, can become exhausted, bitter and cynical.
How should burnout be handled by an organisation?
Once someone has reached the point of emotional or physical collapse, any attempts to “carry on as usual” will only lead to further problems. During periods of burnout, an individual’s job performance will suffer and they may be suffering significant mental or physical problems.
If a line or team manager notices signs of burnout in an employee, they have a duty of care to ensure that the individual receives the care and attention they need, in order to make a full recovery. This may mean referring them to HR or Health and Safety staff, who, in turn, can signpost the affected employee to resources - including counselling, a consultation with an occupational health professional and self-help literature. Some organisations now have subscriptions to online services that allow employees to access online communities and self-help resources.
If an employee is suffering from true burnout – that is, they are utterly exhausted and cannot function at work – they will almost certainly need to take some time off work, in order to regain their mental and physical health. If burnout is suspected, the employee should attend a consultation with their GP or another suitably qualified health professional, who can produce a certificate confirming that they are suffering from high levels of stress and need to take a leave of absence.
Organisations must be sensitive to the needs of those who are returning to work, following time off for stress or burnout recovery. A “return to work” interview and assessment ought to be carried out by the line manager, or a member of staff from HR, as appropriate. Important issues to consider during such a meeting include:
Readiness to return to work – Is this individual truly ready to resume their usual duties? Have they been signed off as “fit to work” by a suitable medical professional? Realistically speaking, are they able to re-enter their previous role immediately, working their previous hours? They may need to work part-time at first, before building back up to a full-time role.
Attitude to work – Does the employee feel generally positive about returning to work? If not, what are their fears and concerns? The better they feel about their return, the more likely it is that they will be able to resume their duties successfully.
Training requirements – If the employee in question has been away from work for some time, will they require any training or re-training, in order to fulfil their duties?
Necessary updates – The longer an employee has been away from their place of work, the more developments they will have missed. In order to build their confidence and allow them to have faith in their abilities – as well as helping them to feel as though they are part of the team, as usual – someone returning to work after burnout will need to be briefed as to any significant developments that have occurred within the organisation during their absence.
Prevention of future burnout – Most instances of burnout are preventable. It is vital that every possible step is taken, to lower the risk of future episodes. If the cause of an employee’s burnout is not clear, they should be given the opportunity to explain in detail the causes they believe to be responsible. This information provides line managers, HR staff and Health and Safety managers with an important means of preventing future episodes of stress.
Future, regular reviews must be arranged in advance – A key action point in preventing recurrence is close monitoring of an employee. This isn’t to say that they must attend weekly meetings, but their stress levels and experience of work must be reviewed on a regular basis. For some employees, this may take the form of a weekly meeting with their team leader. Others may find a check-in with an occupational therapist on a fortnightly basis to be more effective. If possible, an employee ought to be provided with a choice as to how they are monitored for signs of further burnout.
How can burnout be prevented?
As burnout is preceded by escalating feelings of stress, the most important element in preventing burnout is good stress management. We will return to practical tips and tricks for managing stress, later in the course.
It is vital that, if you feel as though you are on course for burnout, you reach out to someone who can help. This may be your line manager, HR manager, or an external service, such as a helpline or counselling service.
Imagine that a colleague comes to you and tells you that they suspect they are heading towards an episode of burnout. How would you advise them?
6. Developing Face-To-Face Confidence
The link between confidence and stress
As we established earlier on in this course, a major cause of workplace stress is a perceived gap between an individual’s competence and the demands placed upon them. Many people have unrealistic ideas about what they can and cannot do - and a failure to accurately assess their capacities can result in stressful situations.
Developing a positive self-image is therefore a crucial step in preventing stress. When you have a healthy appreciation for yourself, your talents and your capabilities, you can realistically weigh up how much and what kind of work you take on. Maintaining a realistic perception will minimise your risk of burnout - and will also enhance your job satisfaction.
Working on face-to-face confidence is a good first step
Even though they may be able to hide it, a great many people struggle with low self-esteem in the workplace. Common worries include the following:
“Imposter syndrome” – Also known as the fear of being “found out”, people with this problem may be performing well in their roles, but have a deep-seated sense of unease. They worry that, although everything seems to be “going well”, it is surely only a matter of time before they make a mistake or a series of errors, that results in disciplinary action, a ruined reputation, or even dismissal.
Feelings of general inadequacy – If you work with especially talented individuals and have low self-esteem, you may be vulnerable to a distressing, ongoing feeling of not being good enough. You may frequently compare yourself to other people and judge yourself to be lacking, even when you have less experience in the industry, or have had fewer opportunities to learn new skills.
Social anxiety – If you frequently find yourself experiencing sensations of worry and panic in social situations (e.g. sweating, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, intense feelings of panic - and so on), you may be suffering from social anxiety. In extreme cases, social anxiety can become debilitating and result in significant periods of absenteeism.
These worries can, in themselves, trigger workplace stress - and they also increase vulnerability to anxiety and burnout in general. Fortunately, it is possible to tackle the problems listed above. It is well worth taking the time and effort to understand and overcome negative beliefs.
How to feel more confident in social situations
The following steps outline an approach you can take when building self-confidence. Dealing with other people, whether they be customers or colleagues, doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Luckily, the following steps will work if followed diligently.
Step 1: Review your social history
Starting with school, then moving through college or university, before considering your experience in the workplace, think about any issues you have experienced that centre around self-esteem or social skills. Note these down. For example, if you were bullied during your time at secondary school and you believe this still exerts a negative impact on you today, make a note of it.
Step 2: Using this information, think about the kinds of negative belief you may be holding.
Now that you have identified the experiences that have - and continue to exert - an influence on your self-perception and social skills, break them down still further and get to the bottom of the beliefs associated with them. To continue with the above example, if you were bullied at school, this may have taught you to believe that you are unlikeable. You may also believe that people you thought were your friends, are capable of turning on you at any moment.
Step 3: Tackle these beliefs one at a time, searching for evidence that proves them to be false.
Write out these beliefs and then write down the evidence that contradicts them. For instance, if you have been encouraged to think of yourself as unlikeable, but, in actual fact, have several good friends, note down that you sustain a social circle. If you hold the belief that people you like are liable to turn on you at any given moment, make a list of long-lasting friendships you have enjoyed, or successful professional relationships that have been characterised by consistency and mutual respect.
Step 4: Make a list of social situations that cause you to feel anxious.
The first three steps listed above will help you to explore and resolve underlying beliefs that limit your confidence. Once you move beyond these beliefs, your self-esteem will receive an instant boost! The next step is to take a look at your current situation. Think about the times at which you feel especially anxious - and make a list. Such situations could include: Making small talk in the break room, speaking up in meetings, giving a presentation, talking to a new employee or leading a training session.
Step 5: Rank them in order from least to most anxiety-inducing.
Step 6: Practice each in turn.
As useful as it is to examine your negative beliefs and review your history, the only sure-fire way to improve your social skills and build your self-confidence is to place yourself in the situations that scare you most. Social skills are just like any other form of practical knowledge – you must learn by doing. Start with the social situation that scares you the least. Deliberately place yourself in this situation at least once within the coming days. To prepare yourself, you can refer to the upcoming modules in this course, in which we will cover a number of useful practical techniques including using body language, handling high-impact conversation and how to deal with objections. Make sure that you have a reward lined up, as an incentive to push yourself. Once you have successfully tackled the least threatening situation on your list, move to the next item - until you have built up to the most terrifying scenario you have listed.
This exercise is very empowering. Not only will you gain greater self-awareness regarding your negative beliefs, but in setting out your fears in black and white, you will begin to regain a sense of control. In taking the final steps and actually entering into these situations and facing your sense of fear, you demonstrate to yourself that change is possible and that you can reach your goals. This is the beginning of a virtuous cycle!
Think about the kinds of social situations that make you feel uncomfortable, or less confident than usual. Having read through the content of this module, is there any way in which you could train yourself to fear these situations to a lesser extent? Choose one situation in particular and devise an action plan that will help you develop greater confidence.
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