Have you ever wondered what is chronic burnout? The term burnout has become so widely used today that it’s now common to hear some people complain about being burned out, even when they’re merely referring to a bad day at work. However, this highly taxing emotional, physical and mental state has a deeper meaning than merely being exhausted.
When one experiences burnout, it means that they have gone past the point of simply feeling disillusioned, helpless or completely exhausted and are at the point where their problems— and symptoms— seem more than they can bear. At this point, everything looks bleak and it is almost impossible to gather the energy or willpower to care about much around them, let alone take action.
So, what is chronic burnout?
Burnout is caused by excessive and prolonged stress. This happens when you feel exhausted and overwhelmed, both physically and emotionally. And you are unable to meet constant work or life related needs. As the stress persists, you may begin to lose interest and motivation in the roles you play. When these feelings persist for a long time or recurs constantly, it’s likely you are suffering from chronic burnout.
Where did the term chronic burnout originate from?
Burnout was first used in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. It was used to describe the consequences of extreme stress in “selfless” professions such as medicine and social work. For instance, Freudenberger noticed that doctors and nurses, who sacrificed themselves for others, often ended up being burned out, leaving them too exhausted, indifferent and unable to cope with the stress of their profession.
Essentially, anyone in the front line such as nurses, doctors and paramedics can be very prone to burnout. The expectations on how they work, when they work and the type of patients that they’re exposed to, the type of content that they’re exposed to during their work, also has that significant emotional impact.
Today, the term chronic burnout is not only used for these professions or for the possible negative effects of personal sacrifice. Burnout is now officially recognised as a medical condition and the World Health Organisation has medically legitimised burnout as a clinical syndrome. Surprisingly, researchers have found that burnout can affect anyone, from high profile professionals and celebrities to 9 to 5 workers.
Symptoms of chronic burnout
The International Classification of Diseases symptoms chart lists the most likely ‘…signs of burnout as:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
- Reduced professional efficacy.’
Chronic burnout is essentially part and parcel of chronic overwork. Or, sometimes, it’s coupled with other health issues. It’s likely there are physiological happenings in the body that predispose some people to burnout more than others. But more times than not, it has an emotional component to it, which keeps compounding and keeps you stuck in the un-wellness.
For example what can happen is, that when lots of major life events happen all at once, the emotional distress compounds and doesn’t have a chance to dissipate before the next event. Which creates a build up. And as a self protective mechanism, a lot of people throw themselves into their work. Or into general busyness, such as finding lots of things to do and keeping themselves very occupied. When there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel good going on in your life, it’s quite natural to be drawn to those things that do make you feel good. And often people feel good if they’re getting praised by their boss, friends or family.
…the emotional distress compounds and doesn’t have a chance to dissipate before the next event.
Feeling needed is often at the core of this; a predisposition to liking to be needed or wanting to be needed. This additional, core driver can keep people stuck in a busyness and burnt out cycle.
You may have heard a great term for this: Rushing Woman’s Syndrome and unfortunately it is an epidemic in our culture at the moment.
My chronic burnout story
I have had my own journey with chronic burnout. I had been self employed, as a massage therapist, without a break from the time I turned 18. Aside from a few days strung together here and there, I hadn’t really had devoted holidays in my working life. And as I entered my late thirties I realised I was very, very burnt out.
Obviously, the hard physical work of being a massage therapist over many years, coupled with running my own business, working out how to start and operate a business and be self employed contributed to this burnout.
Additionally, I had an unhealthy relationship at the time as well. And then figuring out my role as a new mom and having a relationship that wasn’t working and then a business that got incredibly busy as I became more successful.
But what I didn’t realise at the time was that I became stuck in this loop of overwork. Not only did I have the emotional exhaustion of being a new mum and having an unsupportive relationship in that dynamic. In retrospect, I can see that a lot of this was a distraction behaviour. I was trying to keep myself well distracted from what was truly going on in my personal life.
The business grew and grew and kept me very busy. And I got to a point where I literally didn’t know how to unwind from that. I knew I needed to stop and take some breaks but I’d set up that work life in a way that I kind of couldn’t escape from it. To break the cycle and escape, I literally had to sell the business and moved interstate! Which was an extreme, but much needed, action.
At that time, I thought, ‘I’ve worked really hard. I’m feeling really exhausted. I’m going to take a couple of months off.’ And I really just couldn’t launch myself back into the workforce. I tried several times and I just kept getting met with this extreme exhaustion.
I retrained as a counsellor as a much needed new direction. Because I was so eager and enthusiastic about my new career path, as soon as I finished my study, I started my own practice and went hell for the leather again, repeating old patterns and behaviours. And you can guess what happened…
Within two years I became chronically burnt out again. And it required an additional two years off to recuperate.
Stay tuned for my helpful tips on managing burnout. If you’ve realised you’re struggling now you understand what is chronic burnout, make a counselling appointment today for practical advice and help.