What makes us susceptible to burnout?


What is burnout?

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation announced that in the ICD 11 International Classification of mental illnesses, there will be a new category of burnout as an occupational phenomenon, not a mental condition, but what causes burnout?

Heather, a regular contributor to SHP, penned an article entitled Burnout, stress and being human, back in 2019 where she goes into detail on the subject.

This episode of the Safety & Health Podcast revisits a webinar Heather and Stacy recorded for SHP and highlights some of the key points from their discussion about perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management, and as an organization. The conversation begins with Stacy Thompson explaining her views on what burnout is…

“I think the workplace and burnout is very much part of this new trendy mental health term, that mental health is caused purely by the work that we do, especially for those people who are suffering in the workplace. But I think the workplace has a responsibility to help people maintain their mental health and provide the information that people need to survive in the common world that we now live in.

“I think the workplace doesn’t really put boundaries in anymore. So, you’ve got these workplaces that want power, they want money, they want success. They want to retain the best talent and think that’s associated a lot with, we want you to be the best that you can be.

“I’ve even seen it advertised, ‘we want perfection’. There is striving for excellence, but you can never strive for perfection because perfection doesn’t exist.”

Heather Beach added that there are many different dimensions to perfectionism, one of them being setting incredibly high standards for yourself.

Stacy Thompson continued: “We don’t develop the tolerance around failures. The things that people often find difficult, such as fear of failure, fear of uncertainty, lack of control, having high expectations, not only of themselves but also of others often, are enhanced by imposed societal expectations. I think what we’re getting brought up nowadays is in a world where we all feel that we should be perfect.

“Unfortunately, it’s a catch 22 situation, because the more you feel that you’re not meeting your standards or other people’s standards, the more anxiety you get around that and then anxiety then stops you being able to do your best because your head is so full of chaos, overthinking, irrational thoughts, illogical thoughts that you then become depressed because you can no longer do what you do.”

Striving for perfectionism

Stacy Thomson

Stacy Thomson

The conversation then moved on to the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism, linking the neuroscience and physiological part of the human being as a body. If you are a perfectionist, you live on adrenaline and are fuelled by cortisone all the time, because you get a good amount of stress. Doing things and having pressure are things that you thrive off, but also that anxiety is triggering a threat response. The amygdala is being stimulated all the time and you’ve got the dopamine and the pleasure receptor. When you’re successful, you’re tapping into that pleasure center all of the time and, the problem is, the more you stimulate that pleasure receptor, the more it becomes a little bit numb to what you used to get enjoyment out of. Stacy says that’s why perfection has never had a ceiling.

“You end up in a situation where you’re no longer getting enjoyment out of things that you thought you would get enjoyment out of. And your threat response is overstimulated. And if your threat response is overstimulated, you don’t trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your self-soothing system. That’s a later developed brain and that’s where we can apply rationale and thinking, and we can separate our emotions from what’s factual and what’s correct.

“We don’t know how to soothe each other anymore or soothe ourselves. We don’t spend much time there, because there’s not a lot of validation from the soothing. We need to become more aware that doing isn’t always great. There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing.”

How organizations should handle burnout

Heather Beach

Heather Beach

Heather asked Stacy about the trend we’re seeing around reducing work hours too, for example, four days, and whether that is it beneficial. Stacy believes that employers need to give their staff the skills to be able to switch off. “If you do a four day week, and you’re someone who has an inability to switch off, you constantly go and go and go, you will work solidly for those four days in order to get those five days squeezed in.

“However, if you are a nine to five-person at five o’clock, you know, you have switched off, you’ll be more productive between those hours. The problem is, is that there are no boundary bars. If you are to do that to people, you must understand that there’ll be an incredible amount of people out there that are very anxious if they’re no longer able to work after a certain period of time. So those people never think that their work is good enough. You have to be able to manage the two.”

Speaking from her own experiences as a manager, Heather said: “Your relationship with your manager is the most important thing in terms of your workplace thriving and your enjoyment of work. And yet, I’m always really surprised that we haven’t made more progress in the UK, certainly, in terms of promoting people on their people skills, as opposed to their technical skills, and in training them properly. Training them to understand what a good conversation looks like, not just from a Mental Health First Aid perspective, but also what their legal requirements are, what’s their duty of care? We’ve started in the wrong place on wellbeing by not training managers, first and foremost.”

To read in more depth about the subject of burnout, read Heather’s SHP article ‘Burnout, stress and being human’. Or, Click here to listen to the rest of this interview, what is burnout and how can it affect us?, in full.

If you, or anyone you know are suffering from some of the issues mentioned in this episode, please do visit the stress, anxiety, and depression section of the NHS website.

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