We often talk about Burnout, but what does it represent specifically?

By definition it is a state of deep exhaustion that is primarily emotional and mental, but often also physical.

The term burnout was born, in this use in 1974, thanks to the studies of psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who first, in his research, described this type of problem by studying the behaviors and emotions of volunteers working at a free clinic in New York. Currently burnout is defined as “emotional exhaustion syndrome caused by work” and in this synthetic definition we find condensed the essence of burnout: the person, due to prolonged work stress, appears to be emotionally drained, presenting symptoms that interweave not only the emotional sphere but also the cognitive and physical ones.

tend to believe, incorrectly, that burnout can simply be caused by too much work or by prolonged work for an excessive time, but this is not the case. The environment in which you work, being rewarded, not only in the economic sense, for the work done and other stressors are at the origin of this phenomenon. Often, to get to burnout, it is not necessary to suffer a great wrong or be blatantly harassed at work (in this case it would be more correct to talk about harassment) but just the accumulation of many small disappointments and setbacks that, if isolated, would perhaps go unnoticed, but which, adding up, give rise to the phenomenon.

Burnout also brings with it real changes in the brain structure, affecting specific areas and their connections that change over time as things such as small traumas, and small stressful daily moments, accumulate over time. Since burnout actually appears as a form of chronic stress we find all those symptoms that are typical of this condition and that are connected, mainly, to the excessive and protracted release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, giving a number of problems and symptoms that can affect different organs and systems, with different consequences depending on the zone concerned.

Although burnout is recognized as a syndrome in its own right, many of its symptoms tend to overlap with those of other mental problems, particularly depression.

Burnout, in fact, acts on the cognitive sphere with particularly harmful and obvious effects, both on the creative and problem-solving ability, and also affecting memory.

But, in practice, what symptoms should set off the alarm bells?

The symptoms are many and also varied, among them the problems of memory and concentration of which I have already spoken, the inability to decide, the indifference, the cynicism and the loss of empathy that was previously possessed. To these, are added the feeling that time is not enough and that without us things at work cannot go on, the appearance of daydreams that allow, through fantasy, to escape an oppressive reality, the feeling that you are not appreciated as before and falling into self-pity or bitterness, but other emotional-cognitive symptoms, sometimes even nuanced, may also appear.

Are all people at risk of burnout?

In theory yes, but some character traits make you more susceptible to this problem, such as being a perfectionist and demanding too much from yourself, having low self-esteem and tending to self-sabotage, or wanting to try to satisfy everyone.

If you are aware that you have these traits and you are in a work environment that does not appear friendly, or simply is not subjectively experienced as such, the best thing is to start to work on yourself, even with the help of a professional, if necessary, before the problem becomes apparent and materializes.

But once we have entered a Burnout phase, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are going to go back and regain our health by coming out of this negative spiral. What can we practically do to resolve and regain our inner peace?

First of all, it is necessary, but not always easy, to find a balance between the time we devote to work and the time we devote to ourselves: we work to live but we cannot live to work. The time for relaxation and self-care must be recovered and cultivated, and self-care must become a priority. At the beginning, taken from the work spiral, it is not easy and requires commitment, but once it begins it will become spontaneous to ‘unplug’ and recover your own spaces.  Changing your point of view is another important step.

However, there are situations that, in the workplace we cannot, change. But what we can change is the way we deal with them.

Another important thing, although often underestimated, is sleep, and above all to recover a physiological balance in the waking sleep rhythm.

Experiencing emotions to the full is another important milestone to achieve, together with cultivating a social support network, outside of work, that allows to expand positive interactions.

Recovering one’s inner balance and serenity in a Burnout condition is a long and often difficult journey, but it is not a journey that you must necessarily undertake on your own.

Dr. Patrizia Pietropaolo