Burnout is a term that is used often in relation to feelings of physical fatigue due to work, work-related issues and stress. Socially the term is used to describe a person that is chronically overworked and potentially not getting enough sleep and time away from professional life. Often times burnout is also misinterpreted as anxiety or depression.

However, burnout is quite different from just plain physical fatigue. One cannot be burned out solely due to physical exhaustion or lack of sleep. The essential part of burnout is also the psychological element. People that get burned out usually identify themselves with the work they; the position they hold; the social status they represent and defend.

The rationale of needing to perform in order to feel good as a person and the entire perception of person’s worth (and hence self-worth and self-esteem) usually derives from the environment of their upbringing, educational setting and other significant people around them. If someone is brought up in the environment where they are only recognised as a person when they perform, it is likely they will develop tendencies for burnout and workaholic tendencies later on in their lives.

Burnout and perception of importance and worth of success

Individuals that place high value on ambition, social recognition and performance, will be more likely to burn out. Not so much because they will work and engage with their job or professional role more, but mainly because they will tie their performance to their essential feeling of self-worth.

Their self-esteem will depend on the amount and quality of work they do and the goals they reach. They will only feel good about themselves when they perform. When goals are reached, some may even experience ecstatic feelings and feel even more drive for further work and effort. However, not all goals are attainable and not all are short-term.

Another rationale that often is conveyed in therapy is that client will have a perception of needing to perform and work because their career and life depend on that. Sometimes it will go as far as having a perception that their survival depends on performance.

It is important to stress that it is not so much dependant on how much a person’s environment is demanding, but more on how demanding a person is towards themselves alone. It is quite possible that someone will burn themselves out in a job that is not stressful for others. This will happen when the person is critical towards themselves and has high expectations of themselves.

Burnout as realisation of unattainability of set objectives

For a person that is placing high importance to professional objectives, performance, ambition, success, burnout can occur when in the effort of attaining these goals, one finds they are either unattainable or unattainable in the same way as they have been set out and imagined.

Not only will this result in physical fatigue because such person will also physically try to attain the goals that they set of themselves. But it will predominantly result in “mental fatigue” due to realisation of being physically not able to attain them or realisation that the goals are completely out of reach.

Symptoms of burnout

As a person realises this, they will experience a drop in motivation; lack of will to go any further; feelings of despair and apathy; with all this being accompanies by sense of physical fatigue. They may experience agitation and feelings of panic. This will usually be accompanied also with feelings of physical fatigue.

Due to the fact how burnout is caused, it is not unlikely that symptoms may be similar to depression. As we have indicated, are there are quite a few similar symptoms, but there are also similarities in individual’s internal rationale.

How to deal with burnout

As is evident from the above, burnout is predominantly a psychological phenomenon. It should, therefore, also be treated in such manner. Having rest and taking one’s mind off of work will rarely cure burnout. It is essential that the individual’s rationale of needing to perform to gain self-esteem and to feel worthy needs to be challenged. This can be done long-term and most effectively in psychotherapy.