Burnout syndrome: what is it and how to prevent it

Burnout syndrome: what is it and how to prevent it

Publication date: 14-03-2021

Updated on: 01-03-2023

Topic: Mental health

Estimated reading time: 1 min

Cases of emotional burnout have increased during the pandemic, especially among remote workers. Here are its’ symptoms and how to prevent syndrome’s development

COVID-19 health emergency has forced many of us to change habits and ways of work. In particular, many have started to work from home. Until a few months ago it was a niche word that suddenly became widespread.

Literally "agile work", over the months of remote work has transformed from an idyllic ambition of many into a difficult condition to manage. It became a risk factor for burnout syndrome, that is also called exhaustion.

We talk about it with Dr. Marta Colombo, a psychologist at the Policlinico San Marco, where a Clinical Psychology Service provides qualified help in management of this type of difficulty.

What does burnout mean

The term burnout was used for the first time in the 70s with reference to the so-called helping professions, i.e. nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, childcare workers, policemen and firefighters. These professions, by their nature, were initially identified as the most exposed to frequent states of intense emotions.

Since then, however, the concept of burnout has extended to all work areas in which there are strong conditions of tension and pressure.

The burnout syndrome

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon due to poorly managed chronic stress. In 2019 it was recognized as a syndrome. Burnout is, therefore, linked to a prolonged stress condition.

Stress is a physiological state of the body. Healthy stress is defined as eustress, or the condition that helps a person to mobilize his/her resources to solve a problem. However, if a situation of tension persists over time, it risks turning into distress which leads to an exhaustion of the individual's resources, just as has happened to many of us in recent months of remote work due to COVID-19.

Burnout from remote work

If in normal conditions burnout is generally linked to the perception of an imbalance between professional demands & needs and available resources, today there are two factors that influence on the phenomenon of remote work’ burnout:

  • inability or impossibility to disconnect from work;
  • inability or impossibility of having precise working hours, such as in the office.

In other words, the impossibility of disconnecting while preserving a personal space.

Like a light bulb that never goes out, a person in a long run can suffer a sort of exhaustion, due to an investment of energy and resources is too high.

Numbers speak for themselves: according to recent research, average working day in remote lasts 1-3 hours longer. You have more meetings (obviously in virtual mode), you can also be reached outside working hours, by answering the phone or by just sending emails.

The result? 2 out of 3 workers, or 69%, suffer from burnout, 20% more than in the months preceding the lockdown.

Risk factors

In the onset of burnout syndrome there are several factors that can play an important role and, therefore, expose you to a greater risk, such as:

  • social and personal factors (socio-economic level, lifestyle, family’ or friend’ support, ability to tolerate stress, etc.);
  • factors related to the type of work (activities with a high relationship rate, such as hospitals, schools, etc.);
  • organizational factors (low pay, unfavorable environmental conditions, stressful shifts, bureaucratic routines, etc.).

Signs not to be underestimated

The first symptoms, often underestimated, are:

  • insomnia;
  • headache;
  • stomach ache;
  • difficulty recovering energy.

Progressively they manifest as:

  • physical and mental exhaustion, which consists in the sensation of feeling drained and devoid of energy;
  • little interest in work-related questions;
  • feeling of personal inadequacy.

The person affected by burnout can also manifest symptoms such as restlessness, tiredness, apathy, nervousness, tachycardia, nausea, depression, guilt, feeling of failure, anger, indifference, negativism, isolation, cynicism.

A step by step process

The burnout syndrome almost never manifests itself suddenly, but goes through a series of phases, in which the three main characteristics (namely reduction of psychophysical energies, decrease of interest and motivation towards work, decline in professional performance), which are gradually accentuated.

In particular, there are 4 phases of burnout:

  • phase of an idealistic enthusiasm, in which a person is strongly motivated to work.
  • stagnation phase, in which a person continues to work, but realizes that work does not completely satisfy his/her needs.
  • frustration phase, in which a person begins to believe that he/she is no longer able to help others.
  • disengagement phase, in which a person can think about leaving his/her job or no longer investing.

How to reduce the risk of burnout

To avoid the risk of burnout, it is important to have rules, in particular:

  • organize and define working hours: establish the start and end of the working day, calculating an adequate gap for a lunch break. Before and after working hours, you must not answer your mobile phone, look at or write emails, use your PC and devices you use for work;
  • set reasonable goals, without expecting too much of yourself;
  • define a list of priorities among the jobs and projects to be done;
  • work in a defined environment or space, so that you can also change place before and after working hours;
  • don't forget to go out and take some time to change the air and breathe. Also, dedicate a few minutes to physical activity, preferably outdoors;
  • carve out time to rest and indulge in favorite activities and hobbies.

Furthermore, if you recognize some symptoms of burnout, you should not hesitate to first discuss it with your colleagues, who may be going through the same difficulties, or with the employer. If the malaise increases or persists it is better to contact a specialist, such as a psychologist, for help.

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