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Stress and Burnout

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“(Stress is) a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Richard Lazarus

The stress response isn’t a bad thing. It helps us cope, gives us energy and resources, and has kept us alive as a species. Acute stress in itself – one-off stressful situations – aren’t too much of a problem for the body. However, when acute stress turns into ongoing, chronic stress, we can start to struggle to manage the impact of the stress response on our body and mind. Additionally, it isn’t just the source of stress that causes us problems, but how well – or badly – we manage our stress. A good stress management strategy can help to buffer us to the ill effects of stress, but a poor one may mean chronic stress persists and we start heading down the road to burnout.

Burnout is the name given to the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by long-term chronic stress. Some people may be more prone to burnout than others; setting excessively high demands on self, overwork, and perfectionism can make burnout more likely. But it isn’t inevitable. If you can recognise those traits in yourself, you can make changes to mitigate them.

Three stages of burnout

Stage one:  Stress Arousal

Symptoms might include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Teeth grinding
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness/poor concentration
  • Gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Headaches

Stage two: Energy conservation

Energy conservation attempts to compensate for impact of stress. Work performance may start to be affected, there might be an increase in social withdrawal, increased use of self-medication (drugs, food, alcohol), apathy, lack of motivation, persistent tiredness, and needing longer to recover from events.

Stage three: Exhaustion.

This is where people may really feel as though something is wrong.

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Feeling tired and drain nearly all the time
  • Lowered immune system – constantly ill
  • Change in sleep and appetite
  • Chronic health problems

Emotional signs and symptoms

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Detachment and isolation
  • Loss of interest
  • Desire to escape, run away or withdraw totally
  • Depression

Behavioural signs and symptoms

  • Withdrawal from activities and responsibilities
  • Isolating self from others
  • Excessive procrastination
  • Absenteeism at work

The good news is that the process of burnout can be stopped at any stage. Taking positive actions to alleviate the physical and psychological impact of prolonged stress can help prevent burnout from occurring. Treating burnout may be harder, but there are still things you can do.

You can find out more about how to redress the work/ life balance here.

Read our stress-relieving tips.


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