Home page Psychology blog Escaping a trap of emotional burnout

Escaping a trap of emotional burnout

24.07.2019 Author: psiholog pavel horoshutin

“I have been constantly overworking for a third month already. I was generally 15-20 minutes late for work. No one said a word about it. However, if someone asked me to explain my tardiness, I felt that I would answer with a meme “I’m sorry, I was late because I didn’t want to come”. I had no will or desire to wake up in the morning, and put off my alarm clock for ten minutes 5-6 times. Of course, I had no time for morning stretching or meditation. I had lunch at my workplace, all while typing something or even talking on the phone. I left home around 10 PM and always felt that I still had work to do…”

– Vera, 29, used to work with customer complains

Have you been feeling tired or apathetic at work lately? Have those feelings been with you for a long time already? Do you feel anxious about work and other usual activities even after a long vacation, to the point that you are repulsed by the very idea of working? If you have answered “yes”, then you are probably experiencing emotional burnout syndrome.

Emotional burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental drain appearing as the result of prolonged stress and consistent disruption of work-rest schedule. [1]

ICD-10 (International classification of diseases) classifies emotional burnout syndrome under “Problems related to life management difficulty” and is defined as “state of vital exhaustion”. [2]
This syndrome is closely related to occupation, but it can affect other spheres of our lives: hobbies, relationships, and even health.
Let’s talk about causes of emotional burnout and learn to recognize its signs. We will find out how to avoid extreme conditions and remain happy and productive.

Contents:

  1. Signs of emotional burnout
  2. Causes of emotional burnout
  3. Stages of emotional burnout
  4. Test for self reflection
  5. Emotional burnout of mothers
  6. 15 ways to prevent emotional burnout syndrome

Signs of emotional burnout

Signs of emotional burnout

“One day I had to come to work earlier than usual. Deadline was approaching, and I had to finish my report. It was the time before Christmas, many people were already relaxed and ready for parties, traveling, holidays. However, I had no plans and was not in a festive mood. My co-worker came, I looked away from my monitor to say hello.
“Good morning!” said I absentmindedly.

“Wow! Why are you so angry?” she asked me.

I felt like she poured cold water over me. I realized that my face has become permanently tense. Even when I said nice words, people still took me for being angry. That was the day I understood that I couldn’t go on like that, so I gave my two-week notice.”

– Vera, 29, used to work with customer complains

Emotional burnout syndrome appears when a person spends all their energy to manage every task they have and comply with requirements set by themselves and other people, all while having a mistaken perception of their capabilities and resources. Such behavior keeps a person in a constant stress. As this stress accumulates, a person loses all motivation and interest towards their occupation, as well as the desire to work efficiently and productively. [3]

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So, how does this syndrome manifest itself? The signs of emotional burnout can be physical and psychological. There are also signs that appear in social interactions.

Physical signs of emotional burnout:

  • constant fatigue (not only in the evening, but also in the morning after waking up);
  • irregular sleep or insomnia;
  • drowsiness throughout the whole day;
  • sharp weight increase or weight loss;
  • frequent gastrointestinal upset;
  • sense of physical drain;
  • general asthenization (reduced activity and energy, weakness, aggravation of blood biochemistry, changes in hormonal background);
  • constant headaches;
  • respiratory disruption after physical or emotional overload, labored breathing;
  • reduced internal and external sensory perception (decline of vision, hearing, senses of smell and touch);
  • cognitive problems (worsening of memory, comprehension upon reading or hearing).

Psychological signs of emotional burnout:

  • sense of emotional drain;
  • passiveness, reduces emotional tension, sense of frustration, indifference and boredom;
  • high anxiety and uneasiness;
  • nervous breakdown, bursts of anger or social isolation;
  • frequent irritability over trivial things;
  • constant and ungrounded negative emotions (shame, guild, grudge);
  • exaggerated sense of responsibility, constant fear and anticipation of failure;
  • negative perception of future potential in life and work, conviction that any efforts are useless.

Social and behavior signs of emotional burnout:

  • frequent laments to friends and co-workers that the work becomes harder and more difficult to complete;
  • disruption of work schedule, increased or reduced work time;
  • difficulty in making decisions;
  • sense of uselessness for society, reduced motivation towards work, indifference towards results;
  • abandoning priority tasks, getting stuck on trivial tasks;
  • tendency towards spending the majority of work time on simple and automated actions;
  • frequent leaps from one activity to another;
  • developing a habit to take the work home and not do it;
  • critical attitude to other people’s behavior, deterioration of family relationship.

Causes of emotional burnout

Causes of emotional burnout

To put it simply, burnout is the state of physical and emotional fatigue that accumulates due to unorganized work for prolonged periods of time. Day after day a person performs the same actions and doesn’t feel any progress.

Doctors, teachers and people doing manual labor are more susceptible to emotional burnout syndrome, among all occupations. According to Elena Rezanova, a career advisor and the author of “Nevertimes. Escaping the deadlock and finding yourself”, each specialist in any occupation faces the risk of emotional burnout. “I was consulting a photographer the other day. She is a well-known professional that earns big money and travels around the world shooting yachts. The best magazines print her photos. She has a wonderful husband, who also works in a creative job. They live by the sea. One day she realized she cannot make herself work anymore. She simply had no energy to stand up from her bed.” [4]

What causes this syndrome? Let’s look at several causes of emotional burnout.

  1. Triteness

The person has to systematically perform tasks that they view in a negative light. This leads to mental exhaustion. As the time goes, any amount of rest stops being sufficient and doesn’t relieve stress anymore.

  1. Strict or irregular work schedule

A work schedule that requires a person wake up early, leave work late, work even during weekends is hard for any person. If a person has to force themselves to solve schedule issues, this causes constant stress.

  1. Perfectionism and aiming for perfect results

A person demands higher standards from themselves and cannot accept a result that is less than perfect. Any result seems not enough.

  1. Inability to delegate tasks

This kind of behavior is typical for people in management. A person is convinced that everything depends on them and no one can do the job better.

  1. Inability to assess personal resources

A person gives themselves to work completely, they stop valuing their time and health, spend less time for themselves, neglect rest and interactions with friends and family.

  1. Rejection of feelings

A person does not allow themselves to feel weak or tired, developing a certain mindset: “I cannot slack up”, “I must be strong”, “get your head straight”.

  1. Highly charged relationship with management and co-workers

Any constant conflicts at work, even if a person is not a part of them directly but has to witness them, can cause negative reaction.

  1. Worrying for other people’s health and well-being

This is a typical cause for burnout among medical workers. They must constantly show compassion to their patients, which drains their energy and ability to enjoy life. As the result, a person develops certain blocks in their minds, becomes coarse and indifferent towards others and, most important, themselves.

  1. Creative and professional crisis

People working in creative fields, like writers, artists and performers, and also teachers, often experience this. Creative activity requires a lot of mental energy. A person feels the need to make any new project better and more successful than the previous one.

  1. Habit of overextending oneself

Whatever the conditions and circumstances may be, sometimes people have burnout simply because they cannot work another way. For example, Elena Rezanova admits that she has experienced professional burnout herself several times, even when she moved from office job to self-employment: “I opened my planner and saw what was going on in my life several months prior to the whole situation. I had an extremely tight schedule. No breaks from morning till evening. I was eating in front of a monitor, I barely took care about my child, even my husband started saying “hello-o, I exist”. I thought that I had to work extremely hard to make everything right. That simply means that I had burnout not because I didn’t like my job or wasn’t suited for it. I had a burnout because I never learned to work without burning out. That’s how I always worked.”

Elena’s example, just like the experience of anyone who has ever felt themselves at their limits, shows that emotional burnout depends a lot on personal mindset and behavior patterns.

Stages of emotional burnout

Stages of emotional burnout

Emotional burnout is a consistent and dynamic process that in the end leads to termination of any activities and emotional drain. Let’s look at three stages of emotional burnout to find out how we can stop this process before it reached its extreme state.

Tension

During this stage people experience increase enthusiasm towards work. This stage often starts at the beginning of professional career or after a change of occupation, position in the company or social status. A person feels the need to present themselves well. They don’t sense the limit to their resources. Such people want to do more, to take more assignments. They do not pay attention to themselves, their feelings and health.

Resistance

After working for some time in constant stress (it can be from several months to several years, depending on individual traits and character), a person becomes irritated with their work, co-workers and even themselves. In each new task they see the problem, without searching for ways and methods to solve it first. At this stage people experience procrastination, they delay decisions and abolish arrangements. As the result, their minds start to compensate: a person can become addicted to alcohol, food or compulsive buying in attempt to escape negative emotions.

Drain

A person has no energy for experiencing emotions, they want to distance themselves from others and go into self-isolation. They have no desire to search for a better job or modify their working conditions to agree with their resources and values. People often get these thoughts at this stage: “I don’t want to decide anything”, “I have no more strength left”, “leave me alone”.

Test for self reflection

There are specific test methods to diagnose the level of intensity and propagation of burnout syndrome. Psychologists in Russia often use an emotional burnout check-list by Maslach. It contains groups of questions according to specifics of various occupations: medical workers, sales staff, law enforcement officers, engineering staff. Respondents have to rate their answer on the scale from “never” to “every day”, with a total of seven stages of frequency. Such advanced method helps to determine the level of emotional burnout. [5]

Here we offer you a simplified version of this check-list for self reflection to find out whether it is time for you to pay attention to this problem. Choose the statement that best describes your behavior from each pair of statements. Note in which column you have marked more statements.

Typical for emotional burnout syndrome Not typical for emotional burnout syndrome
I don’t feel rested even after a long sleep1I feel refreshed and ready for a new day of work in the morning.
I always think about my work before going to sleep and cannot fall asleep because of them2I have no trouble falling asleep and I don’t worry about tomorrow
Work feels boring3My work is very interesting
I work a lot, but I feel no significant results4I maintain my work schedule and produce significant results
I can sometimes lash out for no reason5I am usually calm and composed, I am rarely irritated
I avoid talking to people at work and my free time6I find it hard to concentrate on work tasks
I find it hard to concentrate on work tasks7I have no trouble concentrating and completing tasks in time
I often forget about small tasks and cannot find necessary items and documents8I control all the tasks and can organize my workspace
I am often ill yet I still continue to work9My immune system works perfectly and I rarely take sick leaves
I get tired from interacting with other people10I become energetic after speaking with others
My work does not bring satisfaction11I am satisfied and enthusiastic about my work
I prefer to watch TV in my free time12I devote my free time to hobbies and outdoor activities
I often feel that my work has no meaning and benefit13I sense my importance at work
I often have conflicts with co-workers and friends14I have good relationship with my co-workers and friends
I always check my inbox, think about work and never switch off my phone at the weekends15I devote my weekends to myself and my friends/family

If the majority of statements you have chosen belongs to the group typical for emotional burnout, keep your head up. Emotional burnout syndrome is a psychological problem stemming from a pathologic behavior pattern. You can distinguish a mindset that leads to this emotional burnout and correct your own behavior. 7Spsy behavior modification technique is one of the mots effective ways to do so.

Emotional burnout of mothers

Emotional burnout of mothers

“Girls, I have no idea what’s happening to me, maybe it’s a postpartum depression taking too long. I am a bad mother, I am tired of my child. I wand to abandon everything, just sit in my corner and do nothing. My son is crying all the time, wants me to hold him, I carry him around, he is teething. Maybe I should consult a neurologist. I am overwhelmed, even my husband doesn’t understand me…”

An anonymous post on a thematic forum

We need to pay specific attention to emotional burnout of women on maternity leave. Such women take care of their children 24/7 without days off, so they can experience burnout quite quickly. Young mothers often forget themselves in a whirlwind of household chores and activities, without realizing that this leads to emotional burnout. They don’t know how to fight it.

If you know a young mother, support her and tell her how important it is to find time for herself only. If that young mother is you, then you should definitely talk to your friends and family, share your feelings and find a way to organize even a short rest for yourself. If you have been experiencing a depressed state for a while, you should also consult a psychologist.

15 ways to prevent emotional burnout syndrome

to prevent emotional burnout syndrome

“Doctors encounter emotional burnout all too often. I have been working in a private clinic and doing charity for more than 10 years. It’s hard to avoid overworking in this spheres. How can I clock out at six when I know someone’s life depends on some unfinished business of mine? I used to be unable to cope with stress. I took all the tasks and thought I could manage. One day I noticed that I haven’t heard my own desires for a long time, and nothing makes me smile anymore. Should I go to a café or a cinema? Should I see a friend or a beauty counselor? Should I read a book or listen to music? Such simple questions, and I couldn’t answer them. Now I have learned to take care of myself and prevent stress. If I want to drink coffee from a porcelain cup by candlelight, then I will do this for no reason. I find time for yoga and pool just because I like these activities. So, what has changed? I simply understood: if I back myself into a corner, I will have no energy to help other people.”

– Marina, 43, doctor

Unlike Vera, Marina managed to notice her signs of emotional burnout and pay more attention to her own state. People who haven’t yet experienced worrying symptoms will also find this advice on preventing emotional burnout useful. [6]

1. Become more organized

Some people say that stress comes from excessive workload. It is only partially true. Many people simply cannot properly organize their work process. Even the same company can happen to have two people working a similar job. One of them is often late and takes their work home, while the other one manages to complete their tasks while on the clock, because they can properly distribute their efforts.

There are many methods for planning and time management. Study them and choose the ones that help you work more efficiently.

2. Plan your rest

We tend to manage our daily, weekly and monthly work schedules more seriously than our plans for rest. As the result, we may easily abandon hobbies and other interesting activities when something urgent comes up. Or, we may take longer to complete normal tasks because we know we can just stay after work and finish them. Allocate some time in your schedule to read a book, watch some interesting videos, talk to friends, have a walk etc. Strictly follow this plan and respect your off-time just as much as you do your work time.

3. Take breaks during work

A preferable working schedule is an alternation between intense work for an hour and a half and 15 minute long breaks. If you work without rest, in the afternoon and evening your productivity may take a dive. Include breaks in your schedule and do not neglect them. Have a stretch, go outside, do some exercises for your eyes.

4. Stop taking sleeping pills

Sedatives have short-term effects and long-term consequences. When affected by medication, your sleep phases get disrupted, so you might experience weird dreams or wake up without feeling rested. Such sleep pattern only supports burnout, while healthy sleep actually prevents stress.

5. Listen to your body

You need to read the signs of your own body to maintain your physical and mental health. When you are angry, scared or anxious, your body reacts by tremor, fast heart rate, sweat on your forehead and back. In order to calm down, you need to find relaxing exercises for yourself and use them.

6. Cut down on coffee

Coffee boosts our mood and energy, helps us concentrate on work. However, this effect is short lived. You will start to feel tired quite soon after drinking a cup.

Excessive consumption of coffee can lead to caffeine addiction, which is detrimental to physical and mental state. Drink more water and tea during work instead.

7. Break your ideals

Aiming for ideal results can only lead to disappointment in yourself and your own abilities. Remember that perfect is an enemy of good. Simply doing a good job is more than enough most of the times.

8. Put down your phone

Make yourself some “digital detox”: refrain from using devices for just one day when you are with your friends or family, so they don’t have to call you. If you cannot allow yourself to do so, then simply switch off your notifications and don’t check your work inbox.

9. Don’t be under the thumb of immediate decisions

When we are upset or exasperated, the first things that come to our mind are often to get coarse, spill our anger and offend our opponent. Do not rush to solve all the conflicts on the spot. Wait until you are more calm and composed, ready for a productive conversation.

10. Do some sports

Physical activity is essential for our emotional well-being. Go to a gym, do swimming or yoga, or even aerobics. This will help you relieve tension.

11. Take deep breaths

Learn some breathing exercises. You will be surprised to find out how they refresh our mind and help in solving difficult problems.

12. Write letters

Keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings, analyze your failures and successes in writing, write letters to yourself. Sometimes simply putting your worrying thoughts on the paper can rewriting them in a positive manner can make all fears and negative emotions go away.

13. Interact with people

Do not isolate yourself from the world. Talk to your co-workers, spend more time with your loved ones.

14. Try new things

Make yourself a rule to try new things every month: apply to a trial dance lesson, go to a trampoline center, visit a drawing workshop of the style of your choosing etc. This will give you a boost of energy from new experiences and let you get to know new people. You may even find a new hobby to relieve your stress and inspire you.

15. Change your behavior pattern

If you feel that your own mindset interferes with a healthy attitude towards work and other activities, that overworking has become a habit and left no room for your personal life, it is time to think about changing your behavior patterns. Be prepared: this will not be easy. You might need to consult a specialist.

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If neither of the methods above helped you feel rested and energetic again, then you need to think about changing your job. Remember that the most important person in your life is you and only you.

References:

  1. Grabe M., «Sindrom vygoraniia. Bolezn nashego vremeni», Rech, 2008 g. 
  2. Mezhdunarodnaia klassifikatsiia boleznei 10-go peresmotra (MKB-10) (https://mkb-10.com).
  3. Emotsionalnoe vygoranie: modnoe povetrie? (http://www.psychologies.ru/articles/emotsionalnoe-vyigoranie-modnoe-povetrie/)
  4. Kak ne vygoret, rabotaia v digital (http://leadmachine.ru/2019/07/01/kak-ne-vygoret-rabotaya-v-digital).
  5. Diagnostika emotsionalnogo vygoraniia (https://experimental-psychic.ru/diagnostika-ehmocionalnogo-vygoraniya/).
  6. Varaeva N.V. «Programma profilaktiki emotsionalnogo vygoraniia spetsialistov “Rabota v radost”», Flinta, 2013 g.