The phrase Burn Out is used a lot in our modern workplaces. Having worked across a variety of industries and inside a myriad of different businesses over the past 20 years, there is a common understanding that Burn Out is bad.
Having lived Burn Out on more than one occasion, I can assure you it isn’t nice. It is not something I would like you to experience, however, it’s not a death sentence or a career killer. You can recover, and you will develop resilience when you are taught how to address what’s going on for you that makes you prone to the “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”.
However, like many words and phrases that get used a lot over time, the concept of Burn Out has morphed to mean different things to different people. Working with client’s who have been away from work for extended periods of time due to conditions like Burn Out, I see time and again some common misconceptions about what Burn Out is and what it isn’t.
In this article, I want to help clear up some myths and help you gain a better perspective of why Burn Out might just be turning up so often in our workplaces.
- Burn Out is not a medical condition
Now, this might surprise you but it’s not. Yes, it feels awful. It feels like there is something wrong with you. You don’t feel right, or yourself. We do know that Burn Out is directly related to work whether paid or unpaid.
It’s difficult to diagnose in a clinical setting. The current bible of mental health conditions (The Diagnosis and Statistical Manual v5) does not include the state of Burn Out as a diagnosable mental health condition. So, if it’s not a mental health condition is it a physical health condition?
Well according to the Mayo Clinic , no it’s not.
“Burnout” isn’t a medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout. Some research suggests that many people who experience symptoms of job burnout don’t believe their jobs are the main cause. Whatever the cause, job burnout can affect your physical and mental health.”
Quite simply despite Burn Out being around since the 1970’s and us knowing that it is a major contributor to time away from paid employment, there is no singular definition that provides for accurate diagnosis and therefore treatment.
- Burn Out is not just being tired
If you have ever heard yourself saying to someone, ‘Oh you’re Burnt Out, maybe you should get more sleep.’ Please stop!
Being Burnt Out is not a result of a lack of sleep. A lack of sleep suggests someone is tired. Being tired is fixed by nourishing sleep.
Being tired happens to everyone. You know that you are not Burnt Out when a good night’s sleep restores your ability to do the things you want to do, at the level of functioning you enjoy.
You are Burnt Out when you have reached a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. For some this means a complete inability to function. I can’t get out of bed; I can’t stop crying, I can’t get my words right, my brain is a fog, I have angry outbursts, I avoid, I withdraw.
For others, it leads to a new cycle of overcommitment in hours and endeavour. That feeling that I’m never good enough so I will work harder to do more to show myself I am OK, and everyone will think I’m OK.
We don’t fix Burn Out with a good night’s sleep. Burn Out would suggest sleep has been problematic for a long time. Did the lack of sleep cause the Burn Out, probably not! The Burn Out probably caused sleep disturbance.
- Burn Out is the modern way of saying I’m stressed
Being Burnt Out is NOT the same as feeling stressed. However, stay in a state of stress and you will be more likely to reach a state of Burn Out.
Stress = more stress = a lot of stress = cumulative stress = too much stress = Burn Out.
If we want to suggest that Burn Out is the modern way of explaining stress, then that is sad. This would suggest that we have a higher than a healthy level of stress that we think is normal. Which suggests that we all need to evolve into people who can tolerate increasing levels of chronic stress because it’s the modern way of work and life.
It’s accepted medical science and has been known from complementary and functional medicine for a long time – Stress, when left a unaddressed, will increase dis-ease.
These are but 3 common misconceptions that I hear time and again from people about Burn Out. It is a poorly understood condition, yet one that effects our productivity, quality of life, and our health.
In an age when we are consistently being asked to do more with less; to be on 24/7, to be more, be better, do more, produce more, how then do we take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing in our workplaces?
The intersection between our work and our health is becoming a more and more noticed place, and an increasingly difficult to ignore place. Medical evidence tells us that good work is good for our health . However, social science is demonstrating that work can also create a level of dis-ease that suggests that work may not be good for our health.
Given we will spend approximately 90,000 hours  at work during our life time – approx. 1/3 – don’t you think that we need to pay attention to the heal effects and contributors of work?
Who is Jo Muirhead?
Jo is passionate about helping people make work, work well. Jo is an engaging speaker, coach and the founder of Purple Co, a team of specialized allied health professionals who help people reclaim their lives and return to work following injury, illness and trauma. Jo is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial Clinician.
Resources used to write this article
 Freudenberger, Herbert J PhD 1980