Burn out involves a continuous feeling of exhaustion, becoming cynical and a lowering of professional self-esteem. Although burn out is not an illness, it is associated with many mental health and other medical problems. In Finland, at least 2 % of the working age population suffer from serious burn out, and as much as a quarter from mild forms.
The three dimensions of burn out
In burn out, tiredness is continuous and overwhelming. The person does not regain a mentally alert state even during their leisure time. Unlike simple stress, burn out starts slowly and eases slowly.
The cynicism that is part of burn out is shown as a hardening of attitudes. Commitment to work is lowered. The person starts to feel indifferent as to how they do their work. In work involving interpersonal relationships, the person starts treating customers as objects. A burnt out employee often isolates themselves from the working community and starts to dream about changing jobs.
A lowering of professional self-esteem comes out as feelings of inadequacy, and even shame, when faced with tasks at work. The responsibility entailed by the work seems crushing in comparison to one's own capabilities. Guilt for work not done festers in the mind during leisure time too. It feels as if work has lost all meaning.
Without work, there would be no burn out, but there are many predisposing factors. Burn out is almost always preceded by a lack of reciprocity in the working community. There can be many causes for disrupted interaction or distortion of responsibility relationships.
The employee may have mental health problems or, because of the features of his/her personality, unrealistically idealised expectations about working. When the expectations and hopes are not realised, the vicious circle of frustration is close.
The causes may also lie in the organisation. The workload and pressure to perform may be unreasonable. Tasks may perhaps be defined in a contradictory manner or imprecisely. Poor management can easily ruin even a strong working community. Lack of appreciation for work done, which often results from poor management, makes people susceptible to mental exhaustion and alienates them from the working community.
Defining the boundaries of tasks and responsibilities starts with a discussion with the individual's line manager. In many professions, work and leisure time overlap, but in burn out it is worth clearly defining the limits. A physical and mental workload that endangers an employee's health and safety is an OHS problem. If starting a discussion about these serious issues is impossible despite a need to do so, changing jobs can sometimes be the lesser evil for the individual.
In the care and teaching sectors, and often in other jobs involving personal relationships, external supervision can be helpful. If it seems overwhelmingly difficult to set limits to work, a conversation with an occupational health care psychologist for example might help to clarify the situation.
Burn out is sometimes associated with severe substance dependence. It could be helpful to keep a tally of one's alcohol consumption, which can be compared to the limits for heavy drinking.
When should you see a doctor?
If a person is seriously concerned over his/her ability to work, a doctor should generally be contacted. If a person's sleep rhythm is disturbed from one week to the next or if the feelings of physical tiredness are continuous, then it is worth talking to a doctor to establish the need for an examination and treatment;
Burn out is often associated with mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. If a person finds that they no longer take pleasure in things that gave them satisfaction earlier in life, they may be depressed. This is particularly the case when a sick leave alone is not sufficient to treat burn out. Depression requires active treatment, whether it is linked to burn out or not.