Burnout Syndrome: When You Overwork Yourself

Burnout Syndrome: When You Overwork Yourself
Judith Francisco

Written and verified by the psychologist Judith Francisco.

Last update: 05 April, 2024

Burnout syndrome is defined as the sensation of unease produced by overworking. The unease tends to be the direct consequence of very intense or very prolonged stress. Thus, the pressure ends up consuming the individual’s resources (psychological defenses). It is more common in helping professions (doctors, nurses, psychologists, etc).

Burnout syndrome looks different in each person. But one of the most visible symptoms is a lack of motivation, which makes the quantity and quality of their work taper off. Therefore, we could say that it’s considered a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion produced by continuous over-involvement in situations that are too emotionally demanding.

Maslach, one of the most notable authors in the field, defines burnout syndrome as “emotional exhaustion which leads to the loss of motivation which tends to give way to a feeling of inadequacy or failure.”

Stressed man with Burnout syndrome.

The three main axes of burnout syndrome

  • Emotional fatigue and exhaustion: People who suffer from burnout syndrome feel like they can’t give quality help or support any longer to their patient or family member. This often makes them feel inadequate or helpless. They can’t give any more of themselves to others. They feel mentally tired and fatigued. Oftentimes, this also extends to physical fatigue.
  • Depersonalization: Due to the process described above, the professional adopts a demeanor of indifference. They become more distant with the patient or their family members. As a result, they do not do their job the way they should or how they would in normal conditions.
  • Feelings of failure due to a lack of personal and/or professional fulfillment: In the long-term, a person with burnout syndrome gets less satisfaction out of their work. They begin to experience feelings of failure or discontent. There is frustration, helplessness, as we referred to in the first point, low self-esteem and disillusionment as regards work.

The vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion

It’s a lot like the domino effect or a vicious cycle. However, it doesn’t have to go in the same order for every person, and it’s not always gradual. What does tend to happen is an “escalation of  symptoms.” In other words, the initial symptoms, unless something happens, tend to give way to everything else.

This doesn’t mean that everyone in the helping professions necessarily experience exhaustion. There are some professional who handle difficult work, like palliative care or oncology, by actually becoming stronger because it it. Which path they take depends a great deal on the emotional coping and regulation resources they use.

Coping with burnout

There are certain elements (experiences, people, situations, etc)  we cannot change and have absolutely no control over. Events that simply are what they are. Things we’d like to change in some way, or ones we wish weren’t there at all.

But… that’s the way it is. So, in order to take care of ourselves, we need to distinguish between what can and can’t be done. Distinguish between what is and what should be. This will protect us from helplessness, frustration, guilt and anger.

It’s important to accept that:

  • We are responsible for the things we do, not guilty of them. Therefore, we can always choose how to react to things that happen.
  • We all have our limits and need to take care of our relationships. Both our relationships with others and with ourselves.
  • Pain and suffering will affect us. It’s normal, we’re just human. But it will help us learn more about ourselves.
  • Emotions have their own rules and are hardly subject to the dictates of reason. This applies even if you’re a healthcare professional.
A woman is stressed at her work desk.

Effective resources to fight burnout syndrome

To treat burnout syndrome, two psychological resources are commonly used and quite effective. We’re referring to acceptance and compassion. They both help release stress. They keep our motivation and  willpower up so we can direct our energy proactively. Being proactive consists of making decisions for oneself. Taking responsibility for one’s actions without justifying them.

Also, acceptance and compassion help us to set realistic and reachable goals. They guide us towards success and achievement. It’s all about focusing on what you want, not on what you fear.

To do so, it’s important to seek out  correct information and invest time into it. One example is practicing techniques such as mindfulness, which is based on full attention focused on the present.

Self-regulation strategies are also important here. By self-regulation strategies we’re talking about things that help us to control our own behavior. These include emotional, cognitive and motor behaviors. The purpose is to adapt better to situations.

In short, the general underlining point is simple: getting back control over important personal choices (like dedicating your life to helping others), which will enable you to do it well and maintain your emotional health.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.