How to recognise the signs of burnout, and what to do. Doctors have been found to have higher rates of burnout and are at greater risk of depression. Even the dream job after too many hours without a break can lead to feeling tired. Human beings need rest and change. But first….what are the signs that you’re burning out?

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What is burnout?

Burnout: the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion

Like the original meaning for the word, burnout is where a person is running low on their fuel. This is usually as a result of running at high intensities for prolonged periods of time, leading to little to no fuel left to go on.

The primary cause is prolonged or chronic job stress.

This phenomenon was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger.

Articles say you develop burnout from doing a job that you are not passionate about, as most of your waking hours are spent at work. However, I disagree. I think any profession, even one that is your dream job, can lead to burn out. I’ll include some examples.

Signs of burnout

  • Distancing yourself from your job – you may start to become focused on all the negative aspects of your job. It can become increasingly stressful to you. You can start to feel jaded, cynical and even numb
  • Physically – you can develop symptoms of being physically unwell, such as chronic fatigue, illness, stomach pain, headaches, and loss of appetite
  • Emotional exhaustion – you’re energy levels feel like they are constantly drained. It becomes difficult to complete tasks that you may have found simple before. You can begin to feel sad and depressed
  • Mental capability – you may have difficulty concentrating, reduced short term memory, difficulty caring for yourself and others
  • Social isolation – you may want to isolate yourself from your friends, family and co-workers

Take the quiz. I’m sure you can already figure out for yourself if you have symptoms of burnout, or some of the beginning stages. However, it’s fun to take a quiz sometimes.

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Some risk factors for burnout

  • Unreasonable workload
  • Low level of support
  • Long work hours
  • Unfair time pressure
  • Mistreatment by employers and/or fellow employees

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The dangers of burnout

In the medical profession there are high numbers of burnout. This isn’t surprising given the high levels of stress, long hours, and chronic understaffing that occurs as a junior doctor. Dealing with death and suffering on a daily basis would drain any person’s emotional resources, leaving you with little left over to practice self care.

Research has shown that people who experience chronic burnout have up to 35% higher risk of early mortality (under the age of 45)[1]. They are 3 x more likely to experience future depression and coronary heart disease [2]. They also have an increased risk of developing diabetes, by a whopping 200% [3].

So the facts speak for themselves. Not only is burnout terrible to live through, it also has real life consequences for a person’s health. The effects being both physical and emotional.

As I wrote in my previous article, 1 in 5 medical students and 1 in 10 doctors had suicidal thoughts in the past year. On top of this, women working in health professions have a rate of suicide which is three times higher than those in other occupations.

We cannot afford to live with chronic burnout.

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It can affect anyone

What I have learned is that even the person most passionate about their job can begin walking down the pathway to burnout. Everyone is susceptible.

I’ve recently been shocked with three travel YouTubers coming out with their stories about burnout. Some had to go to counselling, one couple had a break, and one young YouTuber tragically ended her life. It made me think that if people who travel for a living, and get paid to post videos about it can feel chronically burnt out…it just goes to show that it can really affect anyone.

Every human being needs down time, rest, recuperation, time to sleep, eat and nature. All work no play is never healthy.

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How to heal

So what do we do about it?

There are multiple resources citing that self care is essential in battling burnout. Things such as meditation, exercise, healthy diet, and sleeping well are all protective factors.

Reaching out to your employer and stating your feelings can possibly help reduce the workload.

Or, changing environment all together may be necessary.

I personally believe that once you get to the stage of chronic burnout you really need time. Time to recover, relax, recuperate and regenerate. 1 week isn’t enough, one weekend isn’t enough. You can’t rush this.

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It’s hard

In medicine, having a week off is so hard to achieve. Keeping a balance of exercise and healthy food is also difficult with shift work. Unfortunately, sometimes employers will know your emotional struggle but not be able to help as there is simply no-one to replace you.

Despite this, don’t lose hope. Reach out for help. Let your employer know, speak to your loved ones about it, have a good GP and counsellor.

Practice self care, whatever makes you happy and relaxed – whether that be going to the beach or lighting a scented candle.

There is no shame in asking for help, and saying you are feeling burnout.

And remember, your health comes first. Just like in an aeroplane where you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others, this is the same thing. Before being able to be a great doctor that can help patients, you need to make sure you’re okay first.

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Resources

DRS4DRS – 1300 374 377 – 24 hrs/7 days – an emergency hotline for doctors, confidential and quality advice

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636 – 24 hrs/7 days

Lifeline – 13 11 14 – 24 hrs/7 days

Bibliography

1. Ahola, K., Vaananen, A., Koskinen, A., Kouvonen, A., & Shirom, A. (2010). Burnout as a predictor of all-cause mortality among industrial employees: A 10-year prospective register-linkage study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 69, 51-57.

2. Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berlliner, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of cardiovascular disease: Evidence, possible causal paths, and promising research directions. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 327-353.

3. Melanmed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of type 2 diabetes: A prospective study of apparently healthy employed persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68, 863-869.

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