We live in a hectic world. Most of us face both personal and professional challenges every day. Professional challenges can cause us considerable stress that can spill over and affect other aspects of our lives. Burnout or to be more specific, occupational burnout is the term used to describe a form of stress that emerges out of professional or working environments. Burnout is generally characterised by a number of symptoms. These include emotional exhaustion or feelings of being emotionally drained and overextended, depersonalization or a negative and distant attitude towards one’s job and the people connected to it, and reduced personal accomplishment. Reduced personal accomplishment may be reflected by feelings resulting from a consistent lack of recognition for one’s work or by feelings of inadequacy or incompetency. These symptoms of burnout may arise due to number of factors.
For instance consider the following example: You are a teacher in a disadvantaged school where both resources and your time are stretched. Such restrictions lead to you having a lack of control over what your job entails and you find that you have an unmanageable workload. As well as this the principal and senior staff that you work for, have unrealistic expectations about what you should be achieving and therefore undermine your work. They don’t support you and you find that you bring a lot of the problems that you encounter in work home with you. You also don’t agree with how your school is being run and find that overall you have become disillusioned of the idea being a teacher as it has not met your own expectations.
It is clear from this example how burnout can occur. Burnout is seen as separate to other forms of job stress as it represents a final stage of stress where the individual’s functioning in their job role becomes considerably impaired. In other words, burnout occurs following the ‘last straw’. Burnout is reported more often among some professions. These professions include teachers, medical professionals (particularly trainee doctors and nurses), social workers, police officers, retail and fast-food staff.
So while burnout causes us to feel extremely negatively about our jobs to the point where we may no longer function effectively, what other effects can burnout have and is it classified as a psychological disorder?
Research has demonstrated that burnout if untreated, can be associated with a number of negative outcomes that can affect our health, personal relationships and general well-being. While burnout has been shown to have links with several psychological disorders, it has yet to be established as a distinct disorder and is often classified as a form of acute stress disorder. Several psychological researchers have been quick to point out that burnout shares a number of similarities with depression. For one thing, on the surface burnout can appear to look like depression. Both depression and burnout can emerge as a result of a stressful environment. And finally and most interestingly, they both essentially involve the presence of negative emotions and the absence of positive emotions as well as feelings of a lack of control in one’s life.
These similarities have begged the question of if perhaps burnout is in fact just another form a depression that is contextualised by a working environment. Some researchers have argued against this stance while others have supported it. Significantly more information is known about depression than burnout. Research into depression has demonstrated that particular treatment approaches work better for different presentations of the disorder than others. Thus if it appears that burnout is in fact a subtype of depression, we could learn a significant amount more about how it might be treated effectively. As well as this, the last number of years has seen a surge in the number of people recognising that they may be struggling with depression and therefore seeking help. If burnout were to be recognised as a form of depression, there would likely be an increase in the number of people seeking professional help for these symptoms.
Psychologists Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Renzo Bianchi explored just how much overlap of both depressive and burnout symptoms occurred in a sample of almost 1400 school teachers in the United States. Their study which was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology last month found that there was considerable overlap between symptoms. As expected they found that stressful life events, job adversity and lack of workplace support were common contributing factors to both depression and burnout. More interestingly however, was the fact that Schonfeld and Bianchi found that approximately 86% of the teachers in their sample who met strict requirements for a diagnosis of burnout, also appeared to meet diagnostic criteria for depression. This therefore highlights that there is significant overlap between the two conditions and thus adds further support to the argument that they may be more related than currently recognised.
What these findings further highlight, is that if people experiencing occupational burnout are meeting diagnostic criteria for depression, they are clearly experiencing an acute level of psychological distress. Thus if a person attaches to the term “burnout” under the illusion that it is not as serious or detrimental to their well-being as depression, they might not seek the professional help that they require. Thus while research continues to delineate the exact relationship between depression and burnout, it is still critical that you make yourself mindful about the risks and consequences of this under-investigated psychological difficulty. If you feel that you are at risk of experiencing burnout, seek professional help sooner rather than later. Additionally try to take steps to gain control of your working situation – try to seek support, manage the other aspects of your life as best you can (think your health and relationships), reassess your options (is there something else that you want to do?) and try to keep an open mind. Some people use burnout as an opportunity to overhaul their entire working lives – it is possible that something positive can come out of such an intense struggle.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.