The media have reported recently that companies such as Bumble and LinkedIn have introduced a “Burnout Break” for all employees. Whereby the entire work force have been shut down and placed on a paid week’s holiday in response to occupational burnout. Whilst this is an innovative and progressive move, and a welcomed nod to the need for the good well-being and health of employees, I can’t help but wonder if this is a mere band aid over a broken limb approach?
Early 2018, I experienced what can only be described as a mental breakdown. As I look back, the catalyst for this breakdown primarily came from factors within my workplace, that spilled over into my entire existence. I’d experienced occupational ‘burnout’. I was physical and mentally exhausted from my work and hours, I’d lost all faith in my own abilities and effectiveness, I’d started to become detached from my colleagues and frustrated and angry with management. Physically, I suffered migraines and psychologically, depression and anxiety were diagnosed. I had lost all ability to cope – with anything! The whole process was alien to me. I had always previously adopted the “get on with it” approach, which had always seen me through tough times. But one day, I wasn’t able to get on with it, as two highly stressful years at work had finally caught up with me, and a flood of emotional responses washed over me like a tidal wave. I withdrew from everyday life….for quite a while.
I often wonder, from a position now of relative stability, having taken back control of my life, what could I have done differently? What could my employers have done to stop this from happening to me? The truth is, at the time, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It is only now, having gone through it, improved my situation, and indeed took on a degree in psychology for the past three years, that I can now objectively evaluate what burnout is, how it effects people, and what actions could be taken to help prevent or escalate the job related stresses that lead to burnout. Firstly, employers need to understand the mechanisms and triggers of burnout in order to react and respond appropriately. Secondly, individuals can engage in active adaptive behaviours in order for them to improve their own situation.
Physiology of Burnout
Workload stress is the common trigger of burnout. Our bodies mechanism for coping with stress and mediating our bodies response to it is found in the autonomic nervous system and peripheral tissues, commonly known as the HPA Axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis). Failure to maintain homeostasis (stability) triggers the stress response in the HPA Axis. The principal corticosteroid, (steroid hormone) cortisol, mobilises energy through the body, altering arousal and the way we control cognitive and emotional processing. Normally, corticosteroids inhibit their own secretion to stabilise reaction through negative feedback (homeostasis), however, when there is a malfunction (long-term stress), there is prolonged hormonal activation which has been shown in literature to have pathological consequences. For instance, there are strong links to autoimmune disease, hypertension, affective disorders, and major depression.
In the short-term, introducing burnout breaks and holidays from work may seem like a great idea, and will mediate physiological changes that increase the ability to deal effectively with the short-term stressors. However, longer term consequences of stress trigger elevations in corticosteroid levels, which have been found in research to be related to times of threat and challenge, failures to resolve problems and development of psychosomatic disorders. In this sense, a short break or holiday will not change the longer term harm that stress exudes over time. Only better practices within the workplace may offer successful avoidance of future stress related responses.
Psychology of Burnout
The ‘symptoms’ I describe above are typical of the responses seen in psychological literature to chronic, interpersonal stressors of a job. Many studies cite burnout as overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment and low morale. Often, these contributory factors stem from the response to high demands, individual strain, and defensive coping mechanisms. Whilst for me, depression and anxiety was diagnosed after I took leave of work, it is most likely that there was a reciprocal relationship with burnout, rather than it being a separate entity and result of burnout. Early psychological research found that depression and burnout were indistinguishable, however, more modern, and progressive research explores how each have implications on each other. Anxiety for me, was almost certainly triggered by loss of professional autonomy, access to resources that stopped me feeling like I did an effective job, and my perception that I had the inability to influence decisions in order to do an effective job. This loss of control was a strong predictor of later behaviour.
Take Back Control
Control is very much at the forefront of burnout research, both in terms of individual and occupational risk factors. The Job-Demand-Control-Support Model (JDCS), Karasek and Theorell, (1990), illustrates how job demands cause stress for employees, and are demonstrated through heavy workload, role ambiguity, and job-related strain. However, the model also argues that individuals can manage these stressors through utilizing job skills that allow them to gain autonomy and control over their work. Find out more here.
Switch off people! When you aren’t in work, try to disassociate yourself from it. This is so important for mental fatigue and recovery of stress. Engage in social activities, take up a hobby, do sport or exercise, meditate, get outside, and take part in leisure activities. Do anything and everything you can to distract yourself from work.
Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand emotional processes and regulate them effectively. Therefore, consider your own optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience, as these are important factors to understand when coping with the triggers to burnout. Have a sense of purpose, believe in yourself, know when to ask for help, but retain autonomy. Prioritise work load and say “NO” to new tasks in order to reduce work load. Above all, take your allotted (and required by law) lunch and tea breaks!
Employer Responsibilities Beyond Burnout Breaks
Whilst the role of individuals can make a massive difference when dealing with workplace stress, the employer too has to take responsibility. Often, workplace variables and hazards to burnout are seen with staff shortages, too much work, long working hours, aggressive administrative environments, lack of support from management and poor workplace relationships. These can all be addressed by good organisational resources and should be enforced through good human resource practices. These can be seen through effective and healthy leadership, by setting realistic goals, optimizing job demand, promoting better/necessary job resources and by creating a positive and happy working environment.
Quit your job?
It’s not the only option and should perhaps only be considered as a last resort. However, certainly for me, this was the end result of what was an extremely difficult time. It turns out, this was the best possible outcome. I’d been successful in my workplace for 17 years, but had just hit a brick wall with it, and I could see no way forward other than into further darkness. So, I quit, and took on a new challenge at 43 years of age – to being a full time student and taking on a psychology degree. It was a massive leap, and one I don’t regret. A word of caution however, it may not work for everyone and is very much dependent on individual circumstance.
In summary, I guess my take home message must be a positive one. The fact that employers are beginning to understand the effects of workload demands and offer the opportunity for employees to take a breather, is a positive step towards greater psychological well-being for all in the workplace. There are also numerous steps we as individuals can take to understand burnout and the self-care and attention it requires to keep the burnout at bay. However, the employer still must take huge responsibility to ensure the workplace remains a positive and productive space for all.
Louise Howard, BSc (Hons) Psychology
July 1st, 2021
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