Vulnerable for burnout

We often hear people talking about someone suffering from burnout. Do we really understand what burnout means?

What is burnout?

Burnout: A condition resulting from work-related stress and frustration and is characterised by varying degrees of depression and apathy.

Burnout syndrome: Emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a decrease in personal achievement that is common among people who work with people. It can be regarded as a form of work-orientated stress that develops from the social interaction between the person giving support and the receiver of the support. 

Is it only professional people who suffer from burnout?

Although it is mainly professional people who suffer from burnout, it is true that all people can in some way suffer from burnout, depending on their unique circumstances. Any person who works unnecessary long hours and does not follow a balanced lifestyle, can indeed suffer burnout.

There is also another condition closely related to burnout, which we need to discuss. It is called compassion fatigue.

 Compassion fatigue

Various experts point out that there is a cost incidental to caring. Very few of us get involved with other people or their problems with the knowledge that we probably will have to pay dearly because we care for others. We are idealistic, and therefore often unprepared for the intensity with which our care for other people can affect us. We seldom think about it that other people’s circumstances or trauma can also change us into victims. Fear, denial, ignorance and even an excessive sense of control or perfectionism can prevent people to admit their personal vulnerability or to do something about it before great damage is done in their lives.

Let’s look at a few more definitions in our attempt to understand the whole extent of burnout.

Compassion means “feeling with another; placing yourself in the circumstances of the other”.

In our caring for others we can become so involved in their pain that we subconsciously become traumatised by it. In everyday language it is called vicarious traumatisation. McCann and Pearlman refer to “… the enduring psychological consequences for therapists (and volunteers) of exposure to the traumatic experience of victim clients. A person who work with victims may experience profound psychological effects, effects that can be disruptive and painful for the helper and persist for months or years after working with traumatised persons” (2009:135). In a certain sense it overlaps with burnout, which is normally the result of a work situation that is too demanding, stressful and/or unsatisfactory.

Compassion fatigue is something that can have different names, like secondary victimisation, secondary traumatic stress disturbance or vicarious traumatisation. Put simply, it is a by-product of caring. The more you get involved in other people’s problems, the more vulnerable you are for compassion fatigue.

Vicarious traumatisation is the term that is used for the thoughts, feelings and behaviour that can result from other people’s trauma. Think, for example, about the effect of TV images of the attack on the Twin Towers that were repeated over and over again. Some people were traumatised just by watching these broadcasts. People can also be traumatised once again by watching images or natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

How does this vicarious traumatisation develop?

If you support and help other people continuously, you cannot help but be touched by it. Without a doubt you do work with these people through their negative experiences. Just by listening to other
people’s experiences you can become a victim yourself. While you are giving other people the opportunity to share their pain and burden with you, you absorb a certain extent of their emotional pain. This does not happen consciously. It is how God created us to help carry the burden of our fellow human beings.

It is also important to know that you can burn out by simply working too long hours or by pouring too much energy in your work. When you do that, you have no energy left for yourself or your loved ones. You get home in the evenings and fall down in front of the TV or on the bed. You are totally absent for your family. To recognise burnout or compassion fatigue in yourself or other people, it is important to know what the main signs and symptoms are. 

Signs and symptoms of burnout

  • You have no time or energy for yourself. There just is no more time to do those things that you enjoyed in the past. Even your hobbies are not important anymore. You seldom participate in anything; you only work.
  • You detach yourself from the people who love you. You even distance yourself emotionally from your family and cannot or will not do anything with them anymore.
  • You withdraw socially. This leads to you not feeling like spending time with your family and friends anymore. You lie or sit alone in a dark room.
  • You experience a heightened sensitivity for violence. You are afraid of any unknown situation. You often lock all doors and windows. You just don’t go out of the house anymore, because you are afraid you might fall victim to violence.
  • You become unnecessary and excessively cynical.
  • You experience general despair and hopelessness that causes you to have no hope for the future. You cannot see a positive future for yourself or your loved ones. You often talk negatively about the future.
  • You struggle with nightmares. The scenes in your dream are often brought to the surface by your subconscious mind. It causes you to be too afraid to go and sleep.
  • You doubt your identity and spirituality. Suddenly you do not know who you are anymore. You also often doubt whether God exists. You doubt whether he is really in your life.
  • Things that you could easily do in the past now become a great crisis for you. You simply cannot tackle and carry it through.
  • You find it difficult to think logically and even to make basic decisions.
  • You struggle to observe your basic environment through your senses or to enjoy anything. 

How does one handle burnout?

It is easier to protect yourself against burnout if you know yourself and know your weak spots. It is important that you talk about your emotional health to someone you can trust. Counselling for compassion fatigue and other emotional conditions are part of self-care and general health.

One often thinks that one is strong enough and that one doesn’t need somebody else’s help. It is nevertheless sometimes necessary to be willing to talk to a professional person about your circumstances.
If it is vital that you regularly take leave to disconnect yourself from your circumstances, you just have to do it.

If you do not pay attention to your health (diet, exercise and rest) you will later on not be able to mean anything to someone else in life. When you believe you always need to be strong and in control, the people around you often suffer the most. You become moody and irritated with your partner and children – the people closest to you and who deserve it least.

It remains important to build moments of becoming silent and praying into your life routine. The value of spiritual discipline cannot be overemphasised. True rest is only found with God!

Set boundaries for yourself

It is important that you set boundaries for yourself. Inform other people of your boundaries. You are the only person that can see to it that your boundaries are not overstepped. You must take care of yourself so that people know where your boundaries are drawn and then respect it. You must see to it that you also respect your boundaries yourself. It can require from you to switch off your cell phone after hours and only be available to you family for certain times during a day – and not be available for  any work-related tasks.

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