4 Unexpected Causes of Burnout

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Are you stuck in a job so demoralizing or draining that, by comparison, a root canal doesn’t seem so bad? Here are four unexpected causes of burnout (a.k.a, causes of fantasies of tossing a lit match at your cubicle while you stride away in super slo-mo.)

Like a tomato, which could arguably be a fruit or a vegetable, burnout can arguably be a diagnosable disorder or not. While it’s not recognized as a disorder in the U.S., it is in Sweden and it makes an appearance in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) as a “state of vital exhaustion.”

But whether you call it tomato or tomahto, burnout or vital exhaustion, it’s a state known to many of us, and it ravages the body, contributing to everything from hypertension to substance abuse.

So how do you know if you’re teetering on the brink of burnout? Burnout has three distinct symptoms. First, there is emotional exhaustion, which also bleeds over into physical exhaustion. With this symptom, dragging yourself to work takes heroic effort and getting your to-do list done is out of the question.

Next is reduced personal accomplishment, which is exactly what it sounds like. It takes more effort to get less done, and you wonder what the point is anyway. Even successes feel like the equivalent of a dead-eyed, slack-jawed sarcastic confetti toss.

The last symptom, depersonalization, is being cynical, critical, and resentful with co-workers and clients. If you frequently mutter, “What is with these people?”, “Morons!”, or any number of NSFW labels, you may be on your way to depersonalization.

All of this may sound eerily similar to depression, but burnout is distinct in that it’s constrained to one domain, most often work or caregiving. Folks who are depressed will still be depressed sitting poolside, umbrella-topped drink in hand, but those with burnout often feel better once they’ve taken time off and are face-to-face not with demanding customers and autocratic supervisors, but by a serene lake, their vegetable garden, or their guitar—whatever floats your boat. In other words, with depression, the little black raincloud follows you everywhere, but with burnout, it stays squarely over your workspace.

And while it’s normal to have ambivalent feelings about work, look at job listings over your lunch break, or fantasize about taking a baseball bat to the unruly printer (“PC load letter?!”), you know you’ve crossed a line if burnout symptoms interfere with your best efforts to function.

So what causes burnout? Some of the contributors are intuitive: a never-ending avalanche of tasks, a toxic work environment, or all work and no life. It makes sense that you’d feel drained by a boss who tells you to work through pain, a coach that sprays angry spittle in your face, or a colleague who has loud phone conversations about her sex life while you pick up the slack.

But other factors aren’t so clear. Therefore, let’s walk through four surprising causes of burnout.

Cause #1: Pressure to perform.
Oftentimes, when bosses, teachers, or coaches hold high standards, we rise to the occasion and meet them. We achieve because someone believed we could.

But at a certain point, our perception of other people’s high standards hurt us. A study of around 200 young British athletes found that when the kids engaged in what’s called perfectionistic concerns—which is pushing themselves to reach the perceived sky-high standards of their coaches or parents—it put them on the fast track to burnout. READ MRE

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On August 29, 2020
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