“I can’t take it anymore!”, shout voices that signal signs of emotional exhaustion congregated in a chorus with states of indifference, apathy, feelings of failure, self-devaluation that create the conditions for a symphony, in several voices, of physical and mental exhaustion, disengagement and personal disconnection. What makes this “I can’t take it anymore” state of incapacity most relevant? It is the conviction or the feeling that you cannot cope, do not have the means or the skills to resolve or overcome this feeling, which leads to a state of helplessness.
There are several situations in our lives that can contribute to this state of ‘can’t take it anymore’; when you have to deal with a difficult chronic illness, a prolonged financial stranglehold or a long lasting toxic relationship. But there is one that particularly interests us because it involves a significant part of our lives; we are talking about a stress that originates specifically in the work context. The World Health Organization (WHO), in 2019, declared the existence of an occupational disease originating from a set of conditions how work is exercised and which, until then, in most countries was recognised only as prolonged occupational stress or burnout.
I can’t stand it any longer… and being burnout…
The term was first coined around 1974 by Freudenberg, referring to a common condition of drug addicts who no longer cared about themselves, neglected all aspects of their lives and were only interested in consuming. The only relief, satisfaction and motivation is centred solely on taking another dose of the drug which leads to the expression “you are completely hooked”.
What does this have to do with the effects of prolonged work-related stress? People who are candidates for or at risk of developing this state may start to become disconnected from others, disengaged from activities or issues that used to motivate them, or feel exhausted and struggling to cope with professional situations, lacking energy, having increasing difficulty sleeping, and often experiencing some physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches. Often they also have a lack of spirit and self-esteem or self-confidence, which can be confused with depression or some anxiety states, fundamentally due to the incapacity they generate.
This specific situation, because it is caused by work, is different from the normal stress caused by the effect of illnesses, physical, monetary or health losses caused by the pandemic, or a series of other situations of conflict or domestic work, in which the person feels they don’t have the resources or capacity to deal with the situation.
“All burned out.”
The development and prolongation of professional stress, without actions to repair the stress, gives rise to a state of physical or emotional exhaustion in which a normally dynamic, interested and caring person begins to switch off, disinterested in everything and with no energy for anything. The characteristic way of functioning and acting, the person’s own identity seems to get “burnt out”. There is a marked change from a “before to an after” in attitude, behaviour, performance or work performance.
Although the manifestations of burnout vary in intensity there is always a combination of factors such as physical and emotional exhaustion, alienation from others, feelings of incompetence or failure and feelings or perceptions of helplessness.
Is physical and mental exhaustion only for the less able, the more fragile or those who suffer from mental health?
Many authors refer that many of the people who suffer from this situation are the most dynamic, dedicated, confident and enterprising professionals.
According to the information I have, in Portugal, one of the most notorious examples of burnout is the former president of LLyods and banker António Horta Osório. Another example is Arianna Huffington, the American businesswoman and founder of the Huffington Post, who after overcoming this situation even wrote “The Sleep Revolution“, a book about the importance of sleep, which is undoubtedly one of the preventive and restorative measures for stressful situations.
So, it is not something that characterises or denounces the less able. And although it affects health, it does not necessarily mean that it is accompanied by mental health problems, but rather a less successful attempt to resolve or adapt to a situation, which is unhealthy.
What are the main risk factors?
In many cases, the environment in organisations or in the world of work, of business, is often seen as cold, hostile and extremely demanding, the result of a growing need to respond to productivity and innovation needs. These situations lead to an overload in terms of volume, response to deadlines accompanied, increasingly, by lack and/or decrease of resources and leadership style, which fosters fear and promotes instability and/or dissatisfaction with remuneration. The feeling of lack of autonomy, control, conflict of values, lack of meaning in the work one does and the maladjustment of the person to the function are some of the main risk factors.
Some activities, professions or work environments contain more risk factors for the development of burnout, such as teaching, health professions, caring or supporting others (missionaries, priests, mental health professionals), and others, such as advocacy. However, although burnout can manifest itself differently, and these professions have a higher risk of emotional or relational stress, anyone can be subject to burnout if they are faced with several of the risks identified above, which evolutionarily provoke the “I can’t take it anymore”.
There is a set of practices and policies that many organisations have been implementing and reinforcing, namely in developing their leaders and adapting their actions from an ethical and social responsibility point of view. However, there are also factors of individual nature, namely perfectionism, a disproportionate dedication (work and other areas of life) and the absence of a social life (isolation).
How to prevent burnout?
Stress may not always be negative and can be managed, regulated, preventing the effects of “bad stress”. How? By learning to disconnect from the usual routine, to laugh, to sleep and take naps, to delegate, as I mention in my articles: “Stress on holiday? No way!” and “7 strategies to learn to rest”. Most importantly, it is learning to lead your own life.
The signs of burnout vary from person to person, and there is a progressive evolution. Its prevention or repair depends on the causes that originate the situation, although in practice there are often a number of causes.
Among the most identified prevention measures in research is self-care in terms of a balanced diet, night rest, exercise, among others, namely to combat exhaustion; to combat detachment, cynicism, some counter-intuitive measures such as socialising, caring for others, volunteering, balancing family and personal life and fun; to overcome feelings of ineffectiveness and incompetence, sometimes a longer work of self-knowledge and self-awareness is required to gain greater self-esteem and personal security.
Many measures are taken by government bodies, organisations, companies, etc. But if you wait and do nothing for yourself, for your health and for those who depend on you or love you, nothing will happen. And this “can’t take it anymore” may not affect you directly, but it may affect someone very close to you. It is no longer just a question of well-being, of quality of life. What is at stake is your health and, in some cases, the health of those close to you.
“If not me, then who? If not now, then when?
And if only for me, who am I?
If not me who does it, who will do it for me?“