If there doesn’t seem to be any point to your work or your life…

Recognising the signs of burnout

Kadri Kõiv, BLRT, 17/2008

You’re constantly tired. You have no energy. You lack motivation. That’s something you see a lot these days! But the earliest signs of burnout are in fact hyper-enthusiasm, boundless energy and unfailing willingness to give your all to your work.

Anything that burns can burn out. A number of authoritative studies have shown that the earliest signs of burnout as the result of work- related stress are not tiredness or loss of motivation, but rather enormous enthusiasm, energy and desire to throw yourself into your work.

Anything that burns can burn out.

The seeds of burnout are not sown on your first day on the job, but take root earlier and elsewhere. Long gone are the days of people looking for work merely as a means to earn a living or test themselves: people want what they do to give some meaning to their lives; to achieve something, to make a name for themselves.

For a long time researchers held the view that burnout presented more of a threat to those in mission-based professions, such as doctors and social workers. But it has been clear for some time that burnout can affect anyone whose work demands intensive communication. Managers burn out for the same reasons as other people, but to make matters worse their expectations are often far too high – they want to achieve more in their work than they do; more than in fact can be achieved. One of the other main factors leading to burnout is the discord that often exists between workers and their working conditions.

How can burnout be prevented?

As early as the job interview, experienced interviewers can identify what a person’s philosophy of life is and what their dreams are in connection with their work. Studies which have sought to answer the question why some highly enthusiastic young people suffer burnout while others do not have confirmed that one possible way of preventing burnout is to give new workers the freedom to make their own decisions and determine things for themselves, at the same time also offering them professional guidance. The link between the two for a young manager could be a mentor. The causes of burnout can be found in the operating principles of a company as well as the expectations, habits and behaviour of employees.

If all of the knowledge and advice in terms of avoiding burnout were summarised in a word, it would be ‘balance’: balance between giving and receiving, stress and calm, work and home. It is also important to create a functioning network for yourself of people who can give you both emotional and professional support and also push you. A new challenge is often more useful than support – something that will make you really think about whether the way you are approaching your life and work is taking you where you want to go, and whether getting there is actually worth the effort.

Balance between giving and receiving, stress and calm, work and home.

A support network will also allow you to test how down to earth your ideas and plans are by testing them out on people you trust and getting their objective reactions and opinions. People under great stress are often unable to tell when something is unrealistic.

When a manager burns out it is not only a personal tragedy, but one that affects the people who work under them and their partners outside of the organisation. As such, maintaining the longterm working abilities of managers at different levels and knowingly preventing burnout will enable them to pass on their invaluable work and life experience to younger specialists and will guarantee sustainable, professional human resources for the company.

1. What can you do?

At the first signs of burnout, an employee should talk to their direct superior, development adviser or personnel worker to analyse the following questions:

  1. What can I do differently and what should I change in my attitude towards my work?
  2. What needs to be changed in the working environment?

2. How does burnout manifest itself?

  1. Emotional exhaustion. Work which once inspired passion, excitement and dedication now only produces disappointment and tiredness. You feel as though you no longer have either the physical or psychological strength you once had. Frequently this is accompanied by a sense of emotional emptiness.
  2. Negative attitude to work. Subconsciously you try to protect yourself against negative emotions and situations which lead to exhaustion. At first you do so by withdrawing from your work, viewing everything related to it as negative (“they don’t appreciate me,” “they’re the ones at fault,” etc.). This gradually develops into lasting negativity, indifference
    and acrimony and culminates in a desire to no longer have anything to do with your work or the people connected to it.
  3. Reduced capability. When you stretch yourself too far, you are hit by a professional crisis – you feel as though you are unprofessional and incompetent. This is often accompanied by the feeling that there is absolutely no point to what you do and that it has no importance whatsoever, with this assessment then generalised and applied to your own life
    and to yourself.

3. What causes burnout?

  • unrealistic goals and expectations in your work
  • limited guidance and support when starting a job
  • focusing only on problems and how to solve them
  • being overloaded with work and therefore less able to obtain help from colleagues
  • lack of (positive) feedback and sought-after recognition
  • a sense of conflicting values within the organisation