Burnout Explained

Exhausted? Drained? If you can no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel, you need to start taking care of your needs.

When you are engaged in your work, you display aspects of vigour, dedication and absorption.  However, during COVID-19, you are working in extreme conditions – and you need to safeguard your physical and emotional health.

As the researchers for this CPD-accredited report explain, South African healthcare workers have a higher prevalence of burnout compared to the general population and their international peers. In addition, healthcare worker burnout has a strong impact on quality of life and the quality of care provided; it also places an economic burden on the healthcare system.

“If you’re already functioning on an empty tank, the pandemic we are currently experiencing could cause you to develop burnout,” says Charon Streit, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Gariep and Kimberley. Those at greatest risk of burnout work in the primary healthcare environment, including pharmacy, and at the frontline of care – emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, critical care, oncology, obstetrics/gynaecology, paediatrics and general surgery.

Streit explains that symptoms of burnout can be categorised into physical, emotional and behavioural aspects. “As symptoms do overlap with other disorders, it is advisable to seek professional help to ensure the correct treatment,” she says.

“Physical symptoms include feeling tired, and experiencing ongoing illnesses and headaches. Sleeping and eating disturbances are common,” Streit furthers. “On the emotional side, self-doubt, helplessness, detachment, negativity, low drive and an absence of joy is experienced. Lastly, people with burnout might be isolating themselves, portraying absenteeism, indulging in destructive coping mechanisms (such as alcohol, drugs and food) and have a lower sense of responsibility.”

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. “It is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

As Streit adds, it is also important to understand that burnout is not simply a case of too much stress. “A stressed person can still see the light at the end of the tunnel – they understand that if they gain control over their situation, things will get better,” she explains. “However, a person suffering from burnout is beyond caring, has no motivation and feels devoid of all energy.”

Streit also makes the point that burnout and compassionate fatigue are different. “Burnout is not a sudden process – it develops gradually and creeps up on you,” she says. “Compassionate fatigue is more sudden and situational.”

When it comes to coping with burnout, it is better to be preventative when signs are starting to show, rather than managing the problem once it has reached crisis point. “Quick fixes are not part of the recovery process,” Streit explains. “The overall focus is to regain balance in all the spheres of life.”

How to cope with burnout effectively

1.     Reaching out is a very effective way of dealing with burnout. Don’t expect to be ‘fixed’ by the other person, rather see it as a safe space to express your feelings without being judged. There are different ways of reaching out, including confiding in your significant other, seeking social interaction at work and even getting involved with organised community groups.

2.     Change your perception around your work. Look at the added value you deliver, but also make a point of taking some time out. Become more “selfish” and stop selling yourself short.

3.     Incorporate relaxation activities like meditation, yoga or a creative hobby. This should become part of your daily or weekly to-do list.

4.     Exercising is also very effective in helping with the digestion of the stress hormones.

5.     Learn to set new boundaries around your time at work, your use of social networks and demands from those around you. Learn to say ‘no’!