- Distinguish between and define stress, depression, and burnout.
- Identify three personal and professional risk factors that contribute to burnout syndrome.
- Name three personal and three institutional strategies to address and prevent professional burnout.
Introduction and Overview
I became interested in the concept of “burnout” because, as a speech pathologist and as a coach, I feel like my mission is to help people find what is inside of them that can help them to live their lives more fully and to live their mission. We are all on this earth for a reason, and I want people to feel they are fully who they are and who they can be, despite challenges that might come their way. That is what is behind my interest in burnout. I have been burned out myself at work, and I have also worked with people who have been at risk for burnout. It is a very real problem; one that needs to be addressed and can be remedied.
How did it happen that we have gotten burned out, or have colleagues who are burned out? I like this quote: "In order to be burned out, one must first be alight" (Gil-Mont, 2005). Typically, burnout affects those who are passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others. When we start to burn out, we are not able to be who we want to be at work, and it can bleed over into our personal lives as well. When our flame is diminished, it not only decreases our own health, happiness, and wellbeing, it diminishes all of our relationships with our family, our friends, and within our community. And very importantly to our field, it decreases the quality of care that we are able to give to our students, patients or clients. So burnout is very important to address, both for our personal health and wellbeing, and also for working effectively with the people that we are here to serve.
I have looked at the literature, and I have seen lists from different fields like social work and the ministry of how professionals in these fields describe burnout. I am very curious to see how we as speech pathologists might describe burnout. How does burnout make you feel? Write down or think of a word or two about how you experience, or have seen others experience, burnout. I will tell you that one of my SLP friends said she just feels a malaise -- a sense of low energy. Here are some descriptors from our participants: hopeless, overwhelmed, being pulled in all directions, discouraged, fatigued, uninspired, not invested in the job, exhausted, ineffectual, tired, loss of ideas, boredom, lacking motivation, going through the motions, constant frustration, underappreciated.
That is a very accurate list. This is exactly what we see in some of the common lists. I pulled this one up from a study of social workers:
- Low energy
- Emotional drain
This particular title, “A Profound Weariness and Hemorrhaging of the Self,” really captures that feeling we get with burnout, of just losing some of ourselves. It is very sad, and it really is something that we want to remedy. Feeling unappreciated is a hallmark of burnout. If you are an employer or a manager or supervisor, not showing appreciation to your employees is a huge risk factor for causing burnout at work. Of course, there is frustration and stress, which is at the root of burnout, and emotional drain.
As I was researching this topic, I found that there is no universal agreed-upon definition. We all know it and we are all familiar with it. But there is not a uniform way that people describe it, like they might describe the flu or some other sort of illness. Here is what you will see most of the time. You will see a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. The term burnout was first introduced in 1974 by an American psychiatrist named Herbert Freudenberg. He worked with volunteers in a free mental health clinic in New York City, and noticed that the workers came in full of passion and commitment, but that just kind of went away after awhile, and they were left with what he termed “burnout.” He described it as a loss of motivation, cynicism, and emotional depletion. You will also see the terms emotional exhaustion, alienation from job-related activities, and low performance.
Other definitions that you will find in the literature look at burnout as a process rather than a fixed event, and list varying numbers of different stages. You can find anywhere from three to 12 stages described. But for our purposes, we need to know that this burnout process includes gradual exposure to job strain that becomes more and more unmanageable, an erosion of idealism, and a void of achievement.