Home Health Are You Having a Work Burnout?

Are You Having a Work Burnout?


Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Dr. Dike Drummond may not ring a bell among Filipino doctors, but he is the founder and chief executive officer of The Happy MD, a leader in the prevention of physician burnout for individual doctors and healthcare organizations in the United States.

Born in Indiana, Dr. Drummond earned his medical degree from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1984. After that, he went to California, where he did a family practice residency. Later on, he transferred to Washington State, where he worked as a family doctor for more than a decade.

In 1999, at age 40, “all the color drained out of my career,” Dr. Drummond admitted in his book, Stop Physician Burnout. “I lost all passion for medicine – both in the clinical and business side. It was as if I had hit a brick wall.”

He recalled that it felt like he “was dying and had no other option but to quit. So, I walked away from my fulltime practice. It took me several years to understand burnout was the case. It was an agonizing time in my life, where I felt burned to the ground yet, strangely, I never felt like quitting was a failure.”

Work “burnout,” which Dr. Drummond experienced, is now recognized by the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon. In fact, it has been included in the United Nations health agency’s handbook of medical diagnoses, which guides health professionals around the globe.

The International Classification of Diseases states doctors can issue a diagnosis of burnout if a patient exhibits these three symptoms: 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.

The diagnosis is listed in the handbook’s section on issues related to employment or unemployment. “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life,” it states.

Dictionary defines burnout as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged period of stress and frustration.” It is also described as “a complete depletion of energy or strength.”

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker,” wrote Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man.

More often than not, burnout is job-related. Dr. David Ballard of the American Psychological Association describes job burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.”

Here’s an explanation for the website helpguide.org: “Most of us have days when we feel helpless, overloaded, or unappreciated – when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, you may be burned out.”

The Canada-based Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace says severe burnout can result in self-medication with alcohol and other substances, sarcasm and negativity, and debilitating self-doubt. 

According to the center, burnout – if left unattended – may result in a number of outcomes, including poor physical health, clinical depression, reduced job satisfaction, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, increased risk of accident, poor workplace morale, communication breakdown, and increased turnover.

Anyone can experience burnout – even the rich and the famous. Hollywood actor Brad Pitt admitted to burnout, reflecting on his late-1990s self in 2012. “I was hiding out from the celebrity thing,” he was quoted as saying. “I was smoking way too much dope. I was sitting on the couch and just turning into a doughnut, and I really got irritated with myself. I got to: ‘What’s the point? I know better than this.'”

Singers have to undergo such events in their lives, too. Beyoncé experienced the reality of burnout in 2013 that she had to cancel her concert in Antwerp, Belgium. It was due to “dehydration and exhaustion,” although there were some rumors that she was actually pregnant.

“To my dearest fans in Antwerp,” she wrote in a letter, “I’ve never postponed a show in my life. It was very hard for me. I promise I will make it up very soon. I’m sorry if I disappointed you.”

As a psychological term, burnout was first described in the mid-1970s, according to BuzzFeed. This was when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used the word to describe patients who experienced “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” He ascribed the condition to “helping” professions such as nurses and doctors. 

Dr. Hans Seyle, acknowledged as the “Father” of the field of stress research, having gained worldwide recognition for introducing the concept of stress in a medical context, says burnout doesn’t happen overnight. Generally, it has three stages:

The first stage, which is the “alarm stage,” is called the “fight or flight” phase. This happens when a person faces a challenge or a difficult situation.

“Resistance stage” is the second stage, which has a longer span than the first stage. It is also the stage in which a person deals with issues more on a psychological basis.

The third and final stage is the “exhaustion stage.” During this stage, Dr. Seyle explained, the “alarm stage” returns and causes extreme fatigue, disease, disability, and even death.

In these days of crass materialism and information highways, burnout has become a common concern. “Often, it’s the pace of our lives that creates this problem,” wrote Dr. Frank Lipman, a physician who wrote Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again

According to Dr. Lipman, cultural and environmental stressors have compounded what he called the “total load” of what a person can handle without his top. “We never turn off – we’re on our phones and computers and televisions all the time,” he said. “Apart from the food we eat, which is not helping, apart from the normal stresses we may have been under for years – a bad boss, a bad relationship – we have this added layer of technology that is making everything worse.”

Jill Metzler Patton, in an article published on the website of experiencelife.com, quoted Dr. Roberta Lee, vice-chair of integrative medicine at the Center for Health and Healing in New York City, that contemporary lifestyles of people today contribute to a “perfect storm” for chronic stress. “Burnout represents the most depleted end of the stress continuum,” the doctor said.

As to burnout sufferers, Dr. Lee said: “You’re a vacuous presence.” She went on to explain: “It’s not that you don’t want to be present; you do. It’s kind of like the ICU (intensive care unit) version of stress.”

Although you cannot escape from having a burnout, you can do something to prevent it from happening. As one of the chapters of the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Dr. Richard Carlson suggested: “Prevent Burnout.”

“Work-related burnout is an enormous, disruptive, and often expensive problem for millions of people,” Dr. Carlson wrote. “To put it bluntly, people get sick of and fed up with their jobs and crave a better, different, or more satisfying life.”

The award-winning author, who is also behind Slowing Down to the Speed of Life and You Can Be Happy No Matter What, admitted that there’s no way to guarantee the prevention of burnout, “but there are things you can do to put the odds in your favor.”

Try to take action, the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic suggests. Here are some of the things to do to get started:

Evaluate your options: Discuss specific concerns with your boss or supervisor. Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Try to set goals for what must get done and what can wait.

Seek support: Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends, or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of relevant services.

Try a relaxing activity: Explore programs that can help with stress, such as yoga, meditation, or tai chi.

Get some exercise: Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also take your mind off work.

Get some sleep: Research suggests that having fewer than six hours of sleep per night is a major risk factor for burnout, not least because poor sleep can have negative effects on your performance and productivity.

Mindfulness: This is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience and without judgment.

“Keep an open mind as you consider the options,” the Mayo Clinic suggests. “Try not to let a demanding or unrewarding job undermine your health.”

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