Dynamic Psychotherapy

Dynamic Psychotherapy is a Melbourne Psychology Practice with an ISTDP focus

Burnout: The Silent Storm in Today’s World

What is Burnout?

In the relentless pace of modern life, burnout has emerged as a silent epidemic, often overlooked yet profoundly impactful. The phenomenon of burnout refers to a psychosocial syndrome made up of emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment as a result of chronic workplace stress (Hill & Curran, 2016). This problem has become much more common since COVID-19. Recent studies show that workplace health is more important now than it ever has been (Edú-Valsania et al., 2022). Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.

What does burnout look like? Let me use an example to explain:

Imagine you have just received a new smartphone. Initially, the phone operates at peak performance, swiftly managing every task with ease. There is excitement, there is ambition, and there is motivation to use this latest piece of tech. You only have a few applications to start with; you become familiar with how to use them and they operate well with ease. But over time, as the battery drains without respite, as new applications take up more and more of the phone’s capacity, it starts to falter. The phone becomes slow, unresponsive, and prone to crashing. Notifications become overwhelming. Your screen time becomes excessive. No matter how many apps you close or how much you try to optimise its performance, the device cannot recover without being powered off, recharged, and operated in a way in which demands do not exceed its capacity.

Similarly, people experiencing burnout have been running on empty. Without a period of genuine rest and disconnection, their ability to perform well in both work and professional life diminishes significantly. It’s not that people are actively and willingly choosing to take on more than they can handle. Rather, their internalised value structures, informed by early childhood experience, are influencing their current decision-making processes (whether they are aware of it or not).

The way we use our time is integral to how we define ourselves. If sociocultural environments (in other words, our interpersonal systems) value busyness, productivity, financial status, and overload as a worthy sense of self, then that is likely to influence our decisions in everyday life. In some circles, there’s an unspoken rule that if you’re not busy, you’re not doing enough, which can compel people to overcommit and prioritise work over well-being. Over time, lack of support, work overload, role conflict, role ambiguity, financial distress, and absence of existential significance related to occupation status can all contribute to ‘burning out’ (Kaminski, 2020).

Causes of Burnout

Self-criticism, perfectionism, an inflated sense of responsibility, feelings of inadequacy, and stress are interrelated factors that can contribute to a spiralling path that leads to burnout.

Self-Criticism: When someone engages in harsh self-criticism, they are more likely to set unrealistic standards for themselves. This critical internal dialogue can create a persistent sense of failure, as they perceive themselves as never living up to their own expectations.

Perfectionism: Perfectionists often strive for flawless performance and set excessively high goals. While the drive to excel can be positive, it becomes detrimental when someone fixates on imperfections and overextends themselves to achieve an unattainable ideal. This can result in a never-ending cycle of effort without satisfaction, as the goalposts of ‘perfect’ are always moving.

Sense of Responsibility: An excessive sense of responsibility can make a person feel they are the only one capable of handling certain tasks or that everything depends on their personal effort. This can lead to taking on too much, overcommitting, and neglecting personal needs, as they prioritise their perceived duties over their well-being.

Feeling Not Good Enough: Feelings of inadequacy often stem from self-criticism and perfectionism. When someone believes they are not meeting the standards they or others have set, they might push themselves harder in an attempt to compensate. This can exacerbate stress, as their efforts seem to never be enough, reinforcing the belief in their inadequacy.

Stress: Chronic stress is the response to continued high demands that are perceived as threatening or overwhelming. When someone constantly criticises themself, aims for perfection, feels overly responsible, is financially disadvantaged, and believes they are not good enough, a state of continuous stress.

Financial stress is an added burden. Worrying about money a lot can make burnout more likely. When someone is under financial pressure, they may feel compelled to work longer hours, take on multiple jobs, or accept higher levels of responsibility without adequate compensation or support. This constant worry about finances can create a background of chronic stress that consumes mental energy, leaving the person less capable of managing the demands of work and life. Stress eats up vast amounts of mental and physical resources, leaving less available for recuperation and resilience.

Breaking an unsustainable cycle

The interaction of these factors can create a feedback loop: self-criticism, feelings of inadequacy, and financial necessity can all increase stress. This, in turn, heightens the drive for perfectionism and an inflated sense of responsibility. Eventually, this cycle wears down a person’s mental and physical resources, leading to exhaustion, cynicism, and lower professional effectiveness. This is a recipe for burnout.

Breaking this unsustainable cycle often requires external support, a re-evaluation of self-expectations, and the development of more compassionate self-assessment and realistic goal-setting. Psychotherapy can be an effective intervention for burnout by offering you a supportive environment to explore and understand the underlying issues contributing to stress and emotional exhaustion:

  1. Identifying Stressors: Psychotherapy can help you identify specific stressors in your personal and professional life that contribute to burnout. Recognising these factors is the first step in managing them effectively.
  2. Developing healthier coping styles: A therapist can help you develop more adaptive coping mechanisms and stress management through developing insight into the nature of your burnout, and helping to use this as information to create change. These strategies might include mindfulness, relaxation exercises, time management skills, and setting healthy boundaries.
  3. Emotional Support: Psychotherapy provides a space for you to express your feelings in a safe and non-judgmental setting. This emotional release can be therapeutic in itself.
  4. Improving Self-Care: A therapist can emphasise the importance of self-care and help you develop a self-care plan that might include exercise, hobbies, social connections, and relaxation.
  5. Enhancing Work-Life Balance: Psychotherapy can help you explore ways to balance work with personal life, which may involve learning to say “no”, delegating tasks, or making changes in your work environment.
  6. Addressing Relationship Issues: Burnout can affect your relationships at work and home. Therapy can help you improve your communication skills and address conflicts that may be contributing to your stress levels.
  7. Rebuilding Professional Identity: Psychotherapy can help you redefine your professional identity and goals, aligning them more closely with your values and strengths. This can reduce feelings of cynicism and detachment at work.
  8. Support for Decision-Making: For some, burnout might indicate the need for a significant change, such as a career shift. A therapist can support this decision-making process by helping you clarify your values and priorities.
  9. Prevention: By learning about the causes and symptoms of burnout, you can become more aware of the early warning signs and take steps to prevent it in the future.
  10. Redefined Sense of Self: In working through this process, psychotherapy can help you update your internalised working models. Through the therapeutic relationship, you can feel better about yourself and the way you engage with your present environment and relationships.
Burnout: The Silent Storm in Today’s World

Jesse Muscatello

Jesse is a registered psychologist and a Clinical Psychology Registrar, experienced in both public and private mental health sectors, as well as in tertiary education. Specialising in a psychodynamic approach influenced by ISTDP, Jesse helps clients uncover and address unconscious patterns affecting their current behaviours and emotions. His empathetic, non-judgmental style fosters a strong therapeutic relationship, crucial for tackling various challenges such as depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship, and performance issues. Jesse's focus extends beyond symptom relief, aiming to assist clients in achieving a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

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