Defining and Managing Burn OutAug 09, 2023
Written By: Haley McSweeney, M.A., LMFT
1. What is burn out?
We have all felt burnt out at some point in our lives, either at work, in our hobbies, or in our outdoor pursuits. But how do mental health experts actually define burn out? Burn out is a psychological phenomenon that happens in response to prolonged stressors. Researchers have identified three main categories that the experience of burn out usually entails: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Exhaustion refers to those feelings of being worn out, lacking energy or enthusiasm, and fatigue. Cynicism refers to negative attitudes towards the role or others, irritability, and feeling withdrawn. Inefficacy refers to reduced productivity or capability, difficulty coping, and decreased sense of accomplishment.
2. What causes burn out?
Researchers have identified a number of factors that consistently lead to burn out. These include: feeling out of control over ourselves and the situation we’re in, work overload, feeling like the situation is unfair, insufficient reward or recognition, lack of support and trust from your colleagues or community members, and conflicting values. Essentially, we tend to get burnt out when we feel like we are not valued, autonomous, or supported. Much of burn out comes the the structure of how a business or community group operates.
3. What are the consequences of burn out?
When we’re experiencing burn out, our outcomes and performance actually get worse. We become less motivated, less productive, less engaged, and the quality of our work or effort decreases. We also have a harder time identifying that our outcomes are getting worse.
Burn out negatively impacts our physical health. People experiencing burn out have higher rates of fatigue, sickness, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, and substance abuse.
Burn out negatively impacts our mental and emotional health too. When we’re burnt out, we are more likely to experience depression, resentment, decreased motivation, and chronic mental and emotional stress.
4. What can we do about it?
While it might seem like increasing self care is the antidote to burn out, that’s not the whole story. Researchers have identified interventions for decreasing or managing burn out. They primarily focus on increasing our sense of autonomy, increasing our levels of support, prioritizing self care, and decreasing or restructuring our work load. Here are some practical steps you can take to avoid, manage, or decrease burn out in whatever situation you’re experiencing it in:
Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of restorative sleep every night
Make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition for your energy output needs
Get regular physical activity or exercise throughout your week
Decrease your workload or delegate responsibilities when possible
Seek out social support from your community, friends, family members, and colleagues
Be honest with yourself about whether the situation you’re in is causing your burn out (I.e. a job that overworks and underpays you, coworkers or community members with poor boundaries, etc.), and be willing to create a plan to leave
Prioritize your well being. If you come to the realization that your burn out is the result of a fundamentally unhealthy situation, you owe it to yourself and the people who depend on you to leave that situation when it is possible. That might mean making a plan to find a new job, redefining your personal, professional, or athletic goals, or setting boundaries with people in your life who don’t respect your time and energy.