Chronic Stress in Pandemic Suggests Rethinking Our Ideas about Burnout

as cases spike and a list of symptoms grows, burnout goes beyond just exhaustion

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Burnout encompasses a wide range of mental and physical symptoms. Although we often associate burnout with exhaustion, it’s far more involved than simply needing sleep or being overworked. It can cause depression, detachment, and more.

When it comes to burnout, we can look at the phases of burnout, what directly causes them to begin, and what the risk factors are so we can practice prevention. Photo By ImYanis / Shutterstock

Burnout, a chronic state of stress, was already on the rise before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the world. However, since March 2020 when COVID-19 disrupted our daily lives, a Harvard Business Review survey showed that as many as 60% of people in 40 countries reported experiencing frequent states of burnout.

Burnout, which often comes from being overworked at our occupations and/or in our home lives, was long thought of as only causing exhaustion. However, in recent years, scientists have broadened the definition of burnout and have linked it to effects like cynicism, detachment, depression, and more.

In his video series Boosting Your Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Jason Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, explained burnout.

Defining Burnout

The tricky thing about burnout is that it’s best described starting from the end result and working backwards. Beginning with its effects or outcomes, we can then look at the phases of burnout, what directly causes them to begin, and what the risk factors are so we can practice prevention.

“In brief, burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment,” Dr. Satterfield said. “Social psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson at UC Berkeley have done much of the original seminal work that has defined the field, as well as the disorder and how it’s measured.

“More recent work has suggested that the exhaustion symptom is really the driver of the syndrome of burnout.”

According to Dr. Satterfield, prominent psychologists have theorized that the burnout process can be broken down into 12 distinct phases. While they’re not always followed sequentially, anyone worried about burnout should be on the lookout for them.

Burnout phases include the compulsion to prove yourself, followed by working harder, neglecting personal needs, and displacing conflicts. Also included are revisions of values, denial of emerging problems, withdrawing from others, obvious behavioral changes, depersonalization, inner emptiness, depression, and—finally—burnout.

These phases can lead to or overlap with the symptoms described above, although many of those symptoms are also symptoms of clinical depression.

Risk Factors of Burnout

Dr. Satterfield said that burnout may be clinically similar to clinical depression, as a 2014 study showed that 90% of burned-out workers also met diagnostic criteria for depression. This means that burnout itself may be a depressive syndrome.

Those concerned with experiencing burnout should be mindful of its risk factors. Knowing them in advance can put us in a mindset of preventative self-care.

“Maslach and colleagues identified six risk factors for burnout: mismatch in workload, mismatch in control, lack of appropriate rewards, loss of sense of positive connection with orders in the workplace, perceived lack of fairness, and a conflict between values,” Dr. Satterfield said. “The ‘job demands’ model of burnout proposed that burnout is influenced by job demands and job resources.”

According to Dr. Satterfield, job demands are the physical and psychological costs of work, such as work pressure and emotional demands. Meanwhile, job resources are organizational aspects of the job that help employees manage those job demands.

If someone feels as though they’re experiencing these stressors during work hours, it may be best to discover how to realign the expectations on them as employees with the outcomes they experience. Otherwise, they may find themselves going through the phases of burnout and suffering one or more of its effects.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily