Burnout is something I hear about often in my conversations with people. Our self-test for burnout (Are You Showing Signs of Burnout?) has been a very popular resource over the years. Through my consultations with aid workers and emergency responders, I began visualizing the burnout problem in terms of building a sandcastle on the beach. Work pressure and demands are like the ocean waves—they will always be there. If the sandcastle is the rest of your life (family, friends, health, personal goals), it has to be built with the constant pressure of work in mind.
I’d like you to consider how you currently define burnout. Most people associate burnout with high workload and the fatigue or stress that results. This is a very important component to burnout, but research indicates that it is not the full picture. With fatigue alone, many people can figure out a way to cut back, take a break, or even adapt to working more hours in a week (if they love their work). Burnout seems to occur when two additional factors are present with fatigue: cynicism and inefficacy. Cynicism about our work means we no longer feel that the larger mission or project goals are attainable or meaningful. This can be caused by different things, such as lack of cooperation on a team, or the various structural barriers that can make development and emergency relief work inefficient. People are capable of stretching themselves and accepting challenges when they feel like their efforts will amount to something, but not when they feel there is no point to the work. Inefficacy refers to our personal sense of reduced productivity or effort. Often I will hear people describe this dimension as the experience of working the same amount of hours, but having less and less to show for it. The self-observation that one is no longer “performing” can be a distressing experience by itself.
So think of burnout like a formula that consists of three parts:
Burnout = Overwork/Fatigue + Cynicism + Inefficacy
Now, certain organizations, jobs, and roles may put you at greater risk in any one of these areas. The field of aid work is notoriously demanding. But there are also ways that you can be strategic in avoiding burnout. Here are some ideas:
- Committing to work-life-balance habits can help, like making sure that you’re away from your work computer after a certain time, or scheduling things during your breaks that are fulfilling and restful. Adequate sleep, nutritious diet, regular exercise, and accessing social support are all things that can work preventatively against fatigue, but you have to keep them in place for them to work!
- Know what you are susceptible to. Some people are predisposed to feel cynicism or inefficacy about work, because they have felt this way in other areas of their life.
- Maintain awareness of how you are feeling. Signs of cynicism and fatigue never show up all at once; they develop gradually.
- Don’t ignore the early warning signals. Often the most effective time to intervene is when you start to feel stressed, but many people wait until they are on the verge of collapse before giving themselves permission to ask for help. If you’re just feeling just one or two of the components of burnout—this is a very important time to ask for support from family, co-workers, friends, or a mental health professional.