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Burnout is a group of several symptoms, that manifest a state of exhaustion characterized by chronic stress related to work life. These symptoms result from the association between individual personal aspects, like personality (such as competitive, hardworking, in need of control of the situation, difficulties in tolerating frustration, etc.) and working environment conditions (bureaucracy, excess of norms, rigid norms, lack of autonomy, inefficient communication, etc.).

The symptoms of burnout occur on a continuum and can be grouped into three different dimensions:

  • Physical and Emotional Exhaustion: feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, depression, anger, impatience, irritability, muscle tension, low energy sensation, weakness, worry, insomnia, loss of appetite, difficulties concentrating and focusing attention;
  • Cynicism and detachment: decrease of empathy and feeling of alienation and detachment from others;
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment: or low satisfaction with work since the person thinks he/she has achieved little and/or what he/she has performed has little value, feelings of apathy, hopelessness and irritability.

Additionally, several studies have demonstrated that individuals with burnout may present psychosomatic symptoms such as constant fatigue, muscle tension, headaches and migraines, difficulty falling asleep, gastrointestinal disorders, sexual dysfunctions, changes in the menstrual cycle, among others.

Burnout interferes at several levels, not only impacting the person, but also his/her family and social relationships, as well as the functioning of the organization (burnout employees spend less time and energy at work).

It is important to note that burnout is not considered a mental disorder. However, sometimes burnout may be the manifestation of one of these disorders, such as depression or social phobia. In addition, symptoms of burnout may also arise as a result of adaptation to a physical illness. It is important to make this distinction because a correct diagnosis will allow for the choice of an appropriate intervention.

How to prevent burnout

The symptoms of burnout occur in a continuum and appear in a progressive way. Therefore, it is possible to prevent their evolution if they are detected in a timely manner. If there is no change in lifestyle, these signs will naturally develop in to a state of exhaustion and burnout.

There is an increasing awareness of this problem in the professional context and there are companies investing in the well-being of their workers, aiming to create a healthy and productive organizational culture. However, in some places there is still an overworked and emotionally draining work culture, where doing more is always valued and encouraged. On the other hand and as we have seen previously, sometimes the professionals themselves adopt an excessive level of work, competition and ambition, which when associated with the need for control and low tolerance for frustration can lead to these symptoms of exhaustion.

Therefore, it is essential to know the effects of stress and exhaustion in your life, as well as the working conditions and aspects of your personality that can increase them, so that you can define strategies to reduce these symptoms. Some of these strategies may involve activities such as:

  • Avoid responding to emails or perform other work outside working hours, or, if it is not possible, find a time when do not work (for example, every day set 1 hour to be without your phone and computer);
  • Plan non-work moments in which you can carry out activities that improve your well-being and relaxation, with family and friends or just alone;
  • Avoid overloading work and performing multiple tasks simultaneously;
  • Learn to say ‘no’ in an assertive way, respecting your own limits;
  • Create a healthy work environment with cooperative relationships and respect;
  • Learn to ask for help and to delegate tasks, which may help you to create relationships of trust between you and your colleagues and/or hierarchical superiors;
  • Find value and meaning in your work, what do you appreciate? (These may be seemingly small aspects, like conversations with your colleagues.) If you cannot find an answer then try to find value in another area of your life;
  • Take care of yourself by creating a healthy lifestyle: get enough sleep, maintain a healthy diet and practice physical activity – by taking care of your body you will inevitably take care of our mind.

Creating a healthy lifestyle is critical to reduce stress levels. However, it is normal that when various labor pressures (or others) are present, there is no mental availability for this adaptation. But taking care of yourself has to be a priority. Even if you feel no motivation to do it or even if you feel that you need to devote all of your time to work, you need to choose to put yourself first.

Professional life can be very enriching and satisfying when it is integrated in a balanced and healthy way into the various dimensions of the person’s life.