What Is Burnout?

Young doctor being exhausted in the office room.

Busy health professionals need to look out for burnout. Notoriously difficult to assess, and often dismissed as tiredness or frustration, burnout can, by slow degrees, erode wellbeing, undermine confidence and ability and destroy job satisfaction and personal relationships. Its prevalence is also hard to measure, but among physicians and healthcare workers, risks of developing burnout are significant.

Burnout is generally defined as having three broad components: emotional exhaustion, cynical detachment and reduced levels of competency – all of which are problematic for providers, practitioners and patients in health industries.

It is encouraging that the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), to be used officially in 2022, includes burnout as an occupational phenomenon that affects health status, defining it as a syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

This inclusion, and the definition, signal necessary action to:

  • Acknowledge the risks and dangers to health
  • Remove stigma associated with burnout
  • Shift the focus to conditions in the work environment
  • Encourage more research into how this can be done.

Recognising how this this insidious condition can develop is a good starting point. It has been described as following a 5-stage pattern, with some key symptoms.

5-Stage Pattern of Burnout

  1. Enthusiasm and over commitment (similar to work addiction) if not managed, lead to feeling overwhelmed.
  2. Work takes over and personal, family and social commitments are neglected. Symptoms of stress – fatigue, irritability, impatience and physical illness – appear.
  3. Chronic Stress is characterised by frustration, a sense of failure, incompetence and powerlessness, and feeling unappreciated and undervalued.
  4. Detachment, cynicism and despair lead to losing interest and giving up.
  5. Overall burnout is often associated with diminished competence and the risk of more serious illness.

Help is available. If you are concerned about your risk of burnout, and need to halt the progress of these stages, try Peer Reachout.