Who experiences Burn Out and why?

The term Burn Out is a commonly used phrase in our modern-day vernacular.   If a light globe suddenly gives that pop and ceases to work, we will explain that the globe has “burnt out”.  When I’ve tried to grind 3 days’ worth of coffee for the office in one sitting, there was a burning smell following by no more grinding indicating that the motor had burnt out.  

We get the idea of something mechanical burning out.  Something electrical, or something engine related. That makes sense – there was too much power, or a different wattage, or too much friction and suddenly there is a small of burning then… NOTHINGNESS 

  • The light globe doesn’t work 
  • The grinder’s engine no longer works 

However, when it comes to humanness and Burn Out, we experience it very differently.    When the usually easy-going unflappable consultant suddenly tells a client to shove it during a meeting, we don’t usually go – Oh wait, he’s burnt out.  Or when we notice the super conscientious line manager increasing the length of her breaks, not returning to work after lunch or even returning to work tipsy, we don’t think – wait hang on there’s a smell of Burn Out.  

Despite the threat of Burn Out being real and the concept having been made known back in the 1970s, we will still externalise our experience and attribute blame elsewhere before we will acknowledge that Burn Out has arrived.   

We may decide that the client is a right royal pain in the a$$ and they just needed to be told.  We might decide that there are other performance issues at play that suggests that the person is no longer able to cut it.   

Another complicating factor is that a person who is living their Burn Out might not be particularly likeable.  They are likely to be irritable, critical, defensive, rigid, unforgiving, rude, arrogant and a myriad of other behaviours that tell us to “leave me alone”.   

It is rare that someone will ask – hey is Melanie okshe’s just insulted me in a team meeting again?” Rather it will be something like…  That’s it, I’m reporting Melanie. Something must be done, I will not tolerate her speaking to me like that in front of our peers – <insert formal grievance processes here>. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we tolerate inappropriate behaviour in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter).  What I am trying to do is demonstrate how insidious this thing called Burn Out is.  Because whether we like it or not it is happening around us, and quite possibly to us.   

So, who is at risk of Burning Out? 

Dr Herbert J Freuenberger opined that Burn Out is often the consequence of a work situation, where a person often feels like they are banging their head against a brick wall and not making progress.  I’ve worked with client’s who aren’t in paid work who are trying to recover from injury and illness who are burnt out from all their recovery activities.  I’ve met parents who have chosen to stay at home and look after children who are burnt out from the responsibilities of this caring role.  And we have a growing crisis with those who care for elderly parents and other’s in our families who are burning out trying to meet these care needs. 

We experience Burn Out when we are in a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce expected reward. 

The state of fatigue or frustration when it is left without being addressed robs us of our energyvitality and our ability to care.  This is where we feel tired all the time; where there is performance drop off or an over commitment to activities that aren’t strategic or where are simply avoidant.  The longer we engage in this numbing or avoidant behaviour the more opportunity we give for the friction to increase creating intolerable tension that will one day result in the STOP.  Just like the light globe or the coffee grinder engine.  

Is it any wonder then, in our current age where we are constantly being asked to do more with less, that we are also fearing this experience we call Burn Out?  

Therefore, in answer to the question that I raised as the title to this article.  Who experiences Burn Out and why? The answer is we all can.  The why is found in the tension between our expectations and the actuality of what we are doing.  

What are we to do? Is it just the curse of the modern age?   Is it just a right of passage?  Is it a generational thing? Only experienced by Gen X’ers because they all work so hard (tongue firmly in my cheek by the way as a Gen Xer). 

The first thing to do is realise that we are NOT machines.  Burn Out for a human BEING is not an acute thing.   The human being who is burning out has been doing so for a long and sustained period.  The internal pressure has just become intolerable and all the learned coping behaviours are no longer working.   

So quite clearly something needs to change.   Let’s get back to basics: 

  1. Eat nutritionally rich food. 
  1. Plan to leave work at the end of the day and LEAVE it at work (no one died from an unanswered email). 
  1. Get outside during the day, do not eat lunch at your desk. 
  1. Say No, or, not at the moment when someone asks you to do another task 
  1. Stop caffeine at 3pm and go for a 10 minutes’ walk even if its to the café to get a bottle of mineral water!  

Now NONE of these actions is a cure, but they form the basis of re establishing some healthier boundaries with our work.  Which I have discovered is often the biggest clue that Burn Out is coming.  When work is the slave driver, where I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t; where my performance expectations change at 7.30am every day – this is when I know that there will be a rise in internal friction that becomes intolerable.     

Noted American Psychologist William Schultz provides for us the key for what to do with this information.  

As my awareness increases, my control over my own being increased” William Schultz 

If you have read this article today and it has triggered you or you realise that you need help, please take action now.  Don’t leave this article thinking that this doesn’t apply to you.  Call a trusted friend; reach out to your GP or to a health professional. Please don’t ignore this.  The world needs what you have to offer.     


Jo Muirhead

Who is Jo Muirhead? Jo is passionate about helping people make work, work well. Jo is an engaging speaker, coach and the founder of PurpleCo 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. How to contact Jo: [email protected] +61 414 276 265 www.purpleco.com.au www.jomuirhead.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/purpleco/ https://www.facebook.com/jo.muirhead/ Instagram jo_muirhead

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