Burnout, What/Who’s to Blame?

Burnout, What/Who’s to Blame?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Eighteen months into this journey of declaring war on burnout and I am still learning so much about this public enemy. Even though burnout seems to be such a straight-forward phenomenon, the causes of burnout are not as clear-cut.

What is Burnout? Am I Burnt Out?

First up, let us understand what burnout is. Burnout is simply our body’s physiological and psychological response to chronic stress (stress experienced over an extended period of time).

Here at Emmaus, we help people identify the presence of burnout in their lives and accordingly, act upon it to banish burnout from their lives. Thus, we developed the I.C.E. acronym to help people identify burnout. The signs and symptoms include:

I – Ineffectiveness & Feelings of Inadequacy
Persons who suffer from burnout may start to observe their work plagued by poor performance.

You may notice yourself not being as effective as before; you may spend more time and effort working on tasks which could otherwise be accomplished in much lesser time and/or with lesser effort. You may start to doubt your ability to produce results; a feeling of inadequacy looms around you despite how others can see and affirm your work.

C – Cynicism & Detachment

Relational difficulties and tension may start to appear.

You may start to lose joy in your relationships with others, particularly with your loved ones. Relationships, whether at work, at home or in your social circles, may be plagued with negative thoughts, anger and/or feelings of disconnectedness. You start to isolate yourself by avoiding interactions with others and removing yourself physically and emotionally from others.

E – Exhaustion

Perhaps the much recognizable symptoms of burnout are those associated with exhaustion.

You will find yourself experiencing chronic physical and psychological fatigue; you are always tired and you find that you just cannot “sleep it off”. You have trouble having quality sleep and you wake up feeling drained and dreadful. In the day, you may experience a loss of appetite and/or symptoms of being physically unwell e.g. headaches, aches, pains etc. In some cases, you may also find yourself falling sick more often.

While many of us may associate burnout with work, in particular, salaried work, I would also like to remind us all that burnout can happen in the arena of unsalaried work as well e.g. caregiving, studying and volunteering. Left unchecked, burnout might lead to further complications such as the development of mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety disorders.

More than an Issue of Personal Resilience

Burnout could be the result of a complex interplay of internal and external factors. For some time now, people have touted personal resilience as the magic key to preventing or overcoming burnout. But there is nothing further away from the truth than this way of thinking; it is likened to saying that once a person has him/herself “sorted out”, they will go into “remission” of burnout.

While there is a place for personal resilience as a strategy, we need to also remember that external factors such as workplace culture, workload and demands to constantly travel could also cause burnout. So despite the best efforts of a person in growing personal resilience, burnout will still develop as long as the external conditions allow it. Take our physical health as an example. While we all need to take personal responsibility for our own physical health by building our immunity and such, we must also remember that external factors such as the presence of viruses and bugs, environmental pollution and tainted food can also cause our health to take a beating.

The Role of the Self in Burnout

But before you be quick to point the finger at external factors for causing burnout, let us also embark on a little self-examination to see if we are also “guilty” of causing our own burnout.

This post was inspired by a wonderful article (titled “Work-Life Balance May Have More to Do with Your Personality Than Your Job) by Jessica Greene which was published on Zapier recently. What we have done is to pick out the main points and present it in the executive summary below.

  1. The Two Buckets – Sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng in her book “Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries through Everyday Life” proposes that there are two types of people;
    1. Segmentors – people who are able to naturally draw clear lines between work and life and
    2. Integrators – people who struggle to separate work and life
  2. Well-being – In an interesting study conducted on Google employees by their People Analytics team, it has been noted that Segmentors are more satisfied with their level of well-being than Integrators.
  3. Strategies for Integrators – Achieving work-life harmony takes more than a simple “stop thinking about work” approach. If you are an Integrator, here are some suggestions to help you check yourself out of burnout:
    1. Psychological Detachment – A study by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that just being away from work is not enough for recovery. People needed to experiment and find the type of activity (e.g. jogging, hiking, cooking etc) which would free their minds from work and provide relaxation and the psychological detachment needed for them to recover; there is no “one-size-fits-all” activity for achieving that psychological detachment.
    2. Avoid Activities that Reminds You of Work – This involves an intentional behavioural change to, for example, stop checking work emails on our devices when we are in our private domains and facilitating that by, for example, setting “Do Not Disturb” times on our phones and batching email sending and receiving times.
    3. Brain Dump –  Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that when we try to remember something, our minds go into a “rehearsal loop” to help us remember that information. So, to prevent us from going into this “rehearsal loop” and thinking about work after office hours, the writer suggests that we make a to-do list for tomorrow at the end of the day.
    4. Be Accountable – The article suggests talking to your boss about your personal goals so he/she could hold you accountable to it. It does also suggest that if your boss “isn’t on board with helping you achieve your goals, it may be a sign that it’s not just your personality that’s creating your work-life imbalance”.
    5. Separating Work & Private Domains – As more and more people in Singapore join the “gig” (freelancer) economy, it becomes imperative for integrators who are freelancers to begin separating their work and private spaces. They could do this, for example, by setting and sticking to working hours, being disciplined to distinguish work areas at home and/or working outside of home in coworking spaces or cafes.

What Now?

We hope this executive summary will help you to begin to take steps to make work-life harmony in your life a reality.

Want to learn other handles to preventing or overcoming burnout? Join us for our upcoming events or join our mailing list to be notified of them. Burnout-proof your team too by talking to us. You may also find out what we offer here.


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Burnout, What/Who’s to Blame?

by James Lim
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