Unrealistic pressures to perform and deliver results are creating burnout among many career scientists. If not adressed, work-related chronic reduces productivity, mental health deterioration.
At the last summer Olympics in Tokyo, Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic champion, stunned and also won applaud when she announced her withdrawal from the gymnastic team final and women’s individual finals to focus on her mental health.
For most of us engrossed in the world of chemicals and drug substances, the pommel horse is as far away as it gets, yet we can easily relate with the daily struggles of work, very much like Ms Biles. We may hate Mondays, find it hard to get motivated for even the smallest tasks, we often feel like we’ve lost skills, and the career that excited us and brought so much happiness is no more! Some of us have even contemplated leaving the field altogether, or even worse.
According to recent studies, these feelings are very common. It is just that among scientists, the rates of mental health are higher than those in the general public. In some reports, one in three PhDs is at risk of developing a mental-health disorder, including depression.
Many mental health problems are driven, in part, by the immense pressure on scientists to win funding, publish work in reputable periodicals, land jobs or create innovations in an unforgivingly competitive environment, where tolerance for failure is low. And COVID-19 has not helped matters.
To cap it all, studies have identified that scientists have poor mentorship, poor access to counselling services and those in their line management lack the training to manage wellbeing. This is why universities and employers are now being urged to improve mental health support services, revise leave-of-absence policies, and provide mentorship training all those in line management roles.
In this article, I describe burnout, a common cause of mental health deterioration among working professionals. I describe its causes and risk factors and how it can be prevented. Finally, I outline practical steps on how to recover if you have work-related stress.
What is burnout?
Burnout or chronic work-related stress, is a condition characterised by exhaustion. According the World Health Organisation, burnout is a syndrome arising from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Three of the world’s experts on burnout, Susan Jackson, Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, all agree that burn-out is an occupational phenomenon, specifically defining as a psychological response to interpersonal stressors of work. It is different and apart from experiences in other areas of life.
It is important to mention that work-related stress is not an official medical condition in itself, it is usually only a symptom of other underlying issues, such as depression.
The sinister thing about burnout is that it may even go unnoticed and sufferers may not even be aware that the source of burn-out is their job!
Suffice to say burn-out, whether formally diagnosed or not, has the ability to impact both mental and physical health. And for this reason, it is important that burnout is recognised early and a plan put in place to help one recover from it.
According to psychologist Susan Maslach, burnout manifests in the form of three symptoms, namely exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy due to chronic stressors at work.
Exhaustion is the main symptom of burnout. It encompasses deep emotional exhaustion, physically, cognitively and emotionally, leading to an individual’s inability to function.
Cynicism or depersonalisation refers to a loss of connection and engagement with one’s work. Essentially, the sufferer of chronic burnout feels mentally removed from work, including colleagues, customers or assignments.
Inefficacy refers to feelings of failure and a lack of sense of accomplishment or productivity. Individuals who experience inefficacy feel their skills are eroding and may worry that they will not be successful in other areas of work.
The signs or symptoms can be physical, psychological and behavioural:
Physical symptoms include:
- Muscular tension
- Heart palpitations
- Sleeping difficulties, such as insomnia
- Gastrointestinal upsets, such as diarrhoea or constipation
- Dermatological disorders.
Psychological symptoms include:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to cope
- Cognitive difficulties, such as a reduced ability to concentrate or make decisions.
Behavioural symptoms include:
- An increase in sick days or absenteeism
- Diminished creativity and initiative
- A drop in work performance
- Problems with interpersonal relationships
- Mood swings and irritability
- Lower tolerance of frustration and impatience
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do you constantly feel like you do not have energy for anything?
- Is your sleep interrupted? For instance, do you sleep during the whole day or have problems falling or staying asleep?
- Do you feel like you have to force yourself to go into work? Do you struggle to get started with work tasks?
- Do you notice that you are easily irritated or impatient with work colleagues, clients or customers?
- Have you become particularly critical or cynical about your work or others at work?
- Do you feel you’re not as productive as you were in the past? Are you struggling to focus on your work?
- Do you feel you no longer take interest in your achievements? Has your passion for the job gone?
- Are you increasingly binge-eating to feel better? Are you using alcohol or drug to improve your mood?
- Do you frequently suffer from headaches, unexplained stomach problems or any other unexplained pains or twitches?
Note that the mere fact that you answered yes to any of these questions, it does not necessarily mean you have work-related stress. Equally, you shouldn’t have to live with any of these feelings. Seeking help from professionals will help you deal with it early enough so that you can regain your mojo back and start living life to its fullness.
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Common causes of burnout
Chronic work-related stress is a growing concern in the workplace around the world. Health experts attribute the rise in burnout to increase in work demands and lack of awareness on practical ways to manage it.
All the following issues have been identified as potential stressors at workplaces. A risk management approach will identify which ones exist in your own workplace and what causes them. They include:
- Organisation culture
- Bad management practices
- Job content and demands
- Physical work environment
- Relationships at work
- Change management
- Lack of support
- Role conflict
If a job saps a lot of energy and exposes you constantly to stress, for instance the pressure to meet very tight deadlines, absence of social and supportive network or if the job is chaotic or monotonous, the chances of experiencing burnout are much higher.
Some of the factors that commonly cause burnout include:
- Long hours
- Heavy workload
- Changes within the organisation
- Tight deadlines
- Changes to duties
- Job insecurity
- Lack of autonomy
- Boring work
- Insufficient skills for the job
- Inadequate working environment
- Lack of proper resources
- Lack of equipment
- Few promotional opportunities
- Poor relationships with colleagues or bosses
- Crisis incidents, such as an workplace death
- Unclear expectations
How to prevent or handle early stages of burnout
Thanks to ongoing research by psychologists and health professionals, our understanding of causes and solutions for burnout is much improved. We have a better understanding of what to do once the symptoms of burnout are picked up.
So here are some strategies that have been successful across the board:
- Focus on self-care and wellbeing
It’s crucial to refill your physical and emotional energy, as well as your ability to focus by prioritising sleep hygiene, nutrition, exercise, social networks, and practices that promote mental calmness, such as meditation, journaling and nature appreciation.
If for one reason or another you find it difficult to squeeze in these activities in your schedule, take a week to examine how you spend your time.
You can then take a look at each block of time in your day and record how you spend time, i.e., what you do, the people you spend the time with and how you feel. Then score each activity in terms of how valuable it is or how it leaves you (1 = drained, 10 = energised).
This can enable you find breaks and opportunities to reduce exposure to situations that do not build you, and this way, find breaks for rejuvenating moments away from work.
- Shift your outlook
Although relaxation, resting and rejuvenation can help alleviate exhaustion, address cynicism and improve productivity, they do little as far as mollifying the underlying causes of burnout.
Back at work, you may still have to contend with the same unmanageable workload, conflicts or lack of resources. It is therefore important to take a look at your expectations with respect to work:
Which aspects of work can be changed? It helps to ask yourself what tasks can be delegated to free up energy for other meaningful tasks. Perhaps some aspects of your work could be changed to allow you regain some level of control over your workday.
And if it is cynicism, look into ways of sheltering yourself from parts of the workplace that antagonise or frustrate you and instead re-engage with those aspects of the job that are most meaningful.
It also greatly helps if you can find supportive relationships and networks that can help counteract those that drain you.
- Eliminate or reduce exposure to stressors
Reduction of job stressors requires you to recognize those particular activities and relationships that trigger unhealthy stress. This might require a reset of expectations from colleagues, clients and even family members regarding what and how much you are willing to take on as well as the ground rules for walking together.
You may, of course, experience resistance as you go about this; the most important thing, however, is to assure yourself that the changes you’re making will improve your long-term productivity as well as protecting your wellbeing.
- Invest in connectivity
It has been found that one of the most effective remedies for burnout, especially when its driven by cynicism and inefficacy, are finding and making rewarding interpersonal connections and seeking professional growth. Reaching out to and engaging in coaching and with suitable mentors that can help identify opportunities for growth can be highly rewarding.
Another issue is finding opportunities to volunteer in your community or to help others in similar situations can be a very powerful way to break out of a negative cycle of cynicism and lack of motivation.
Finally, given the role of the situational dimension to burnout, chances are that others in your organisation have burnout, too. So finding and identifying with others in a similar predicament will help identify organisation-wide problems and lasting ways to address them.
- Nip burnout in the bud
Getting aware of the problem is the first step to addressing burnout. However, this is often the most difficult simply because we tend not to accept ‘weakness’ or reassess aspects of our behaviour.
If you hear family or colleagues express any concerns about your work, its important to take heed. Granted, accepting that you are heading into a crisis will be hard to take, however, and at the end of the day, your wellbeing is what counts.
- Get support
It is crucial to find someone who is willing to challenge your assumptions and give you a different take on things. This may be a trusty friend, a coach, family member or therapist. This is because burnout has the potential to cloud your thinking and decision making. Hence, if you can be helped with finding and mapping out work-life boundaries, it will be easier to to find that happy medium.
- Take time to recharge even if you love your job very much
It’s common to get exhausted from time to time, particularly on those occasions when the job is all consuming. This is not full burnout. Still, it is important not to let things slip, so here are some quick ways to recharge:
Take breaks during the day. In order to perform at your best consistently, you need to find opportunities to restock your mental energy. Taking regular breaks allows to step away and clear your headspace.
Put away digital devices for a moment. Today, we find ourselves carrying our offices wherever we go with no downtime at all. It is a good practice to place your work phone away when you arrive home so that you’re not tempted to check work emails during out of office hours.
Take weekend breaks. Short breaks have been shown to help reduce stress, aid with maintain peak performance while also reducing the need for long lay-offs. Make sure that while you’re away, you completely switch off from work.
How to recover if you already have burnout
The first step to take in order to recover from burnout is to regain your perception of control of your situation first. During the state of burnout, people often feel as if their circumstances are out of their grasp, a few others may even feel the rest of the world is working against their interests. This mentality creates a virtuous cycle and block them from dealing with their circumstances.
But what is resilience? Simply it is an individual’s ability to positively respond to stress, pressure, risk and adversity.
To fully appreciate resilience, we need to borrow from the British Army’s highly acclaimed mental resilience programme for its soldiers. This programme recognises soldiers do not only need physical strength but also mental toughness if they are to effectively face the many challenges of their careers. It comprises the following principles:
SELF-BELIEF – confidence in your own abilities and judgement
POSITIVE AFFECT – the ability to interact with life in a positive way
EMOTIONAL CONTROL – the ability to understand and express your emotions
MENTAL CONTROL – the ability to control thinking, attention, concentration, focus, self-awareness, reflexivity, problem-solving
SENSE OF PURPOSE – the motivation that drives you forward
COPING – adaptability, natural coping strategies you have learnt through coping in previous stressful situation
SOCIAL SUPPORT – the social network you have and the ways you use it.
Here are some of the things you can do to build mental toughness:
1. Develop a positive mindset
To increase your resilience, the first thing that one has to do is refocus on building a strong, positive mindset in everyday life.
2. Know your why
Another aspect of building resilience is constantly being aware of your “why” when it comes to your short and long-term goals. If you’re going to achieve a big goal knowing why you need to do it in the first place cushions you against discouragements and disengagements as soon as you experience your first setback.
3. Find strength in others
Developing resilience is much about your inner fortitude as much as embracing the idea that you’re not in it alone. Even the most successful people among us rely and count on others for support, mentorship, guidance and encouragement when times are difficult. So you should have the confidence to do the same.
4. Learn to pick yourself up
Finally, it is worth remembering that building resilience isn’t easy! Anyone who’s ever achieved massive success knows that obstacles, setbacks, and failure are inevitable, and you’re no different.
As you work on your goals, you’re going to face many ups and downs, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t have mental toughness, willpower, or discipline.
In summary, you can build resilience through learning to recognize negative tendencies and taking action to correct them early on with healthy habits. Developing resilience is not about eliminating weakness, but learning how to deal with it and overcome it.
Final Thoughts on Burnout
The never-ending pressures to deliver new knowledge and products and be on top of things have undesirable consequences for scientists’ wellbeing. Burnout, the term that is sometimes used for all sorts of work-related stresses, is, in realty a serious red-flag that things are not going well. Unmanaged, chronic burnout leads to low productivity, negative emotions and mental ill-health. Recognising burnout early and taking steps to deal with its causes is important. But equally, all stakeholders, from line managers, to the boardroom, need to understand and recognise burnout and institute processes to address it so that workplaces are supportive and more productive.
- Diane Wood. Corporate burnout affecting the mental health of 20% of top performers in uk businesses. Personnel today, may 3, 2017.
- Christina Maslach and Susan E Jackson. The Measurement of Experienced Burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour 2 (1981): 99-113.