Am I actually experiencing work-related burnout or am I just tired of 2020? I spoke to a psychologist to find out



You will feel like yourself again.

It’s not actually a hot take at this point to say 2020 has really been a pile of steaming garbage – we’re all well aware. But, one teeny tiny sliver of somewhat positive news to come from this year has been a reassessment of our culture of work and how it’s affecting our mental health. 

Alongside fresh terms entering the lexicon of weird things we would only say in a corporate context (Zoom fatigue anyone?), we’re having conversations about the same old culprits that have been making work miserable since long before pyjamas were standard office attire. Burnout is one such buzzword.

I know I’ve had moments this year where I felt like I was drowning under a mountain of unrelenting due dates, but I wanted to find out more about whether I was experiencing work-related burnout or just your run-of-the-mill ‘the world is ending and I’m expected to be productive but I just want to make banana bread’ kind of stress.

So, I decided to speak to psychologist Jeannine Mills. She’s been practising for more than 15 years and specialises in stress, depression and anxiety – so it’s fair to say that she’s seen her share of burnt out clients.

But what actually is burnout?

Last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) reclassified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. So, while you’re welcome to say that you’re burnt out from too much Christmas shopping, the WHO wouldn’t believe you (sidenote: if your job does involve retail therapy, I’m jealous).

It defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The WHO characterises burnout by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

How do I know if I’m experiencing it?

The important thing to know about burnout is that it goes far beyond normal stress. Jeannine talks about “the window of tolerance”, where we move from manageable stress towards burnout, which can feel insurmountable.

We’re in a state of hyperarousal when we’re stressed. It can look different for everyone, but we might be presenting as anxious, hypervigilant, angry, rushed or impulsive. “There’s good stress too,” Jeannine says. “Stress gets a bad rap, but it’s very motivating.” 

The issue arises when that stress is chronic, and we move into a state of hypoarousal. “When we’re in that state for too long, it wears us down – it becomes exhausting,” Jeanine says. When we’re burnt out, we might be feeling foggy, hopeless, unmotivated, passive or withdrawn.

While she emphasises that they’re not the same thing, Jeannine notes that burnout can actually look more similar to depression than typical high anxiety. “It reminds me of being flooded,” Jeannine says. “The dam wall is broken and there’s just too much water.”

Why have things gotten to this point? 

Jeannine emphasises that part of prevention and recovery from burnout should involve doing some deep self-reflection or getting professional help to understand why we are experiencing it. There can be external risk factors from within the workplace like unreasonable expectations of workload, a problematic corporate culture based on high levels of pressure or competition, or even workplace bullying.

But often burnout can be linked back to internal struggles that need to be addressed if we ever hope to have a healthy relationship with work. These risk factors could include perfectionism, negativity, people-pleasing, excessive self-reliance, a fear of failure or a lack of self-esteem.

Jeannine notes that perfectionists and those with excessive self-reliance may struggle to delegate, either because “they’re too scared to rely on others,” or, “they think that only they can do that task”. She says that people-pleasers and those with low self-esteem can have a tendency to take on too much work.

“Whatever the motivation is – whether it’s fear, conditional worth or guilt – if someone feels defective, if their way of being is to assume that they’re not as good as everyone else, then they might overcompensate to try to prove their worth,” Jeannine says.

Others struggle to turn off or detach from work. “That can be very stressful because they’re bearing the brunt of everything, even though it’s not their responsibility. Everything is on their radar all the time,” Jeannine says.

2020 is a real dickhead, frankly

Surprise, surprise – a lot of these risk factors for burnout have been exacerbated by working from home. Jeannine notes that part of this comes down to a lack of opportunity for informal communication.

“There’s no capacity for you to go get a coffee and check in with your co-worker about how they’re doing,” she explains. “It feels like a much bigger deal to pick up the phone to check-in.” Because of this, there’s a loss of the incidental teamwork and ability to emotionally offload that can make us feel supported when we’re struggling. 

Jeannine says that the biggest thing that she’s noticed with her clients this year is a lack of recognition from many employers or the government that lots of employees are home with young children. “The expectations of workload have not been reflecting the increased demands on parents – it’s just not sustainable,” she says.

How can I get better?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. “If people are feeling burnt out, they’ve really got to look at the nuances of why that is, and look at managing the risk factors that they can control,” Jeannine says.

Not everyone is going to have the capability to leave a job that’s making them burnt out, but we can take steps toward working more sustainably. Putting boundaries in place, getting practical and emotional support, and recognising and managing those internal struggles could all be part of recovery.

As we’ve freshly emerged from our iso hellholes only to be thrust into the mad dash towards the end of the year, Jeannine advocates for taking a holiday. “Gaining perspective is an important part of recovery – for those who can, I say gain some distance from the office, especially if the office was your bedroom this year,” she says.

I ask Jeannine if she has any parting words for people feeling like it’s all a little too much right now. “It’s normal!” she exclaims. “If we’re chronically stressed for long periods of time, it’s normal to feel exhausted. It doesn’t mean it’s hopeless and it doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. It will get better. You will feel like yourself again.”


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