The Psychology of Burn-Out Behaviour

By January 27, 2007 February 9th, 2017 General

Burn out is formally defined as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. Burn-out is accompanied by an array of symptoms including physical depletion, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, disillusionment of a negative self concept and negative attitudes towards work, people involved in work and life itself.

A simple test developed to detect “burn out” can help to identify this malady that affects highly motivated and idealistic people.

  • Are you working more now and enjoying it less (on the job, in the marriage, in friendship)?
  • Do you find it difficult to confide in others?
  • Must you force yourself to do routine things?
  • Are you listless, bored, constantly seeking excitement?
  • Would you rather be somewhere else? Doing something else – with someone else?
  • Do you drink more than you used to?
  • Do you need a tranquillizer to face the day? A sleeping pill to get through the night?
  • Are you resigned about your future?
  • Is your need for a particular crutch increasing? (smoking, eating, nail-biting, drinking).

If your answers to half of these questions are “yes”, you may be headed for trouble.

Tragically, burn-out strikes precisely those individuals who had once been among the most idealistic and enthusiastic persons. Empirical research has discovered over and over again that in order to burn-out, a person needs to have been on “fire” at one time. It follows, then, that one of the great costs of burn-out is the diminution of the effective service of the very best people in a given profession or a given family.

The root cause of burn-out lies in our existential need to believe that our lives are meaningful, that the things we do are useful and important to the society we live in. Burn-out has three components:

  • physical exhaustion
  • emotion exhaustion
  • mental exhaustion

Physical exhaustion is characterized by low energy, chronic fatigue, and weakness. People in the process of burn-out report accident proneness, increased susceptibility to illness, nagging colds, headaches, muscle tension in shoulders and neck, back pains and psychosomatic complaints. It must be pointed out that many people attempt to combat burn-out by physical and chemical means such as barbiturates, tranquillizers, hallucinogens, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Emotional exhaustion involves primarily feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and entrapment. In extreme case, these feelings can lead to emotional breakdown, depression or serious thoughts about suicide. It may cause incessant, uncontrollable crying leading to paralysing depression.

Mental exhaustion is characterized by the development of negative attitude towards oneself, work and life itself.

Burn-out people develop negative attitude towards others. Dehumanization is defined as a decreased awareness of others and a loss of humanity in interpersonal interactions. Burned out professionals may come to see their clients as aggregates of problems rather than as individuals. Symptoms of negativism, cynicism, authoritarianism and a tendency to be inflexible have been noted in burned out patients. They arrive late for work, leave early, extend work breaks or avoid work entirely. In other words, they develop an “I don’t give a damn” attitude.

Burn-out Prevention and Recovery

Dr. Herbert J. Fruedenberg, a noted psychologist, has suggested the following for burn-out prevention and recovery:

  • Stop denying. Listen to the wisdom of your body. Begin to freely admit the stress and pressures which have manifested physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Avoid isolation. Do not do anything alone. Develop or renew intimacies with friends and loved ones. Closeness not only brings new insight, but also is anathema to agitation and depression.
  • Change your circumstances. If your job, your relationship, a situation or person is dragging you under, try to alter the circumstances.
  • Diminish intensity in your life. Pinpoint those areas or aspects which summoned up the most concentrated intensity and work toward alleviating that pressure.
  • Stop over-nurturing. If you routinely take on other people’s problems and responsibilities, learn to gracefully disengage. Try to get some nurturing for yourself.
  • Learn to say “no”. This means refusing additional requests or demands on your time and emotions.
  • Begin to back off and detach. Learn to delegate, not only at work, but also at home and with friends.
  • Re-assess your values. Try to sort out the meaningful values from the temporary and fleeting, the essential from the unessential. You will conserve energy and time and begin to feel more centred.
  • Learn to pace yourself. Try to take life in moderation. You only have so much energy available. Ascertain what is needed in your life, then begin to balance work with love, pleasure and relaxation.
  • Take care of your body. Don’t skip meals, abuse yourself with rigid diets, disregard your need for sleep. Take care of yourself nutritionally.
  • Diminish worry and anxiety. Try to keep worry to the minimum. You will have a better grip on your situation if you spend less time worrying and more time taking care of your real needs.
  • Keep your sense of humour. Begin to bring new and happy moments into your life. Very few people burn-out when they are having fun.

For more information please contact Dr. S.S. Sodhi, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist at Roth Associates in Psychology and Counselling.

Author Sid Sodhi

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