Burnout is a syndrome which occurs due to prolonged emotional strain of dealing extensively with other human beings, particularly in helper and recipient relationships. Burnout is categorised as a type of stress. Unlike normal workplace stress which predominately affects individuals physically, burnout affects individuals emotionally.

The term burnout was introduced in the 1970’s, and although the word is widely known, the impact of burnout is often misunderstood. Burnout can be a complex and disabling condition, far more serious than feeling tired after a long week at work. Although any profession at any level can be affected by burnout, there is an increased need for individuals working in the counselling, nursing and teaching fields to fully understand the symptoms of burnout, and more importantly, adopt preventative measures.

Over the years the definition of burnout has changed and expanded to include a number of key components. Below is a summary of a number of different perspectives of burnout:

  1. A disease of over commitment: This suggests that burnout is the state of emotional exhaustion related to overload.
  2. Changes in motivation: A psychological withdrawal from work in response to excessive stress or dissatisfaction.
  3. Alienation: The extent to which a worker has become separated or withdrawn from the original meaning or purpose of work.

Other definitions also include attitude and behavioural changes in response to workplace demands and a tendency to treat clients in a detached, mechanical fashion.

These descriptions are all valid when describing burnout, and regardless of the preferred definition, burnout affects the individual emotionally, impacting on both the quality and satisfaction of their work.

Burnout Prevention

“If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then the best way to beat burnout is to keep it from happening in the first place. In other words, take action before burnout appears rather than afterward. Instead of suffering through the costs of caring and then trying to recover from them, it makes more sense to try to eliminate them. The costs may be too high ever to overcome, thus, it is wiser to avoid them altogether.” (Maslach, The Cost of Caring: p. 216)

Not all strategies require large amounts of planning and change. In fact introducing good work routines early in one’s career can significantly reduce the likelihood of burnout. These include:

Source: Personnel Today

  1. Keep expectations realistic
  2. Reduce your workload
  3. Relax at work
  4. Take allocated lunch breaks
  5. Consider a career break
  6. Develop and maintain interests outside of work
  7. Use your full holiday entitlement
  8. Recognise your own responses to workplace issues

Burnout and its impact on counsellors, clients and organisations needs to an objective and highlighted subject in contemporary workplaces, with prevention a responsibility of both individuals and organisations.