When I think about burnout I’m pretty sure I know what it is, but if you were to ask me to describe it in words I… well, I wouldn’t know what to say to you apart from bleuUGhh. I know it’s common and I know I feel it sometimes, but I haven’t really thought about it beyond, “Christ, I feel burnt out”. But what is burnout? Stress? A slump? Or, could it be a symptom of something else?

First things first, it’s extremely easy to dismiss our feelings about burnout because others have it worse. It’s just a slump, you’ll get over it – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said these exact words to myself. But burnout, and how it can make you feel, matters.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout as a clinical syndrome “conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The syndrome has three main characteristics:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Another way to look at burnout is by describing it as “not having enough”, according to Kids Helpline counsellor Amanda Grehan, who spoke to PEDESTRIAN.TV.

It’s about not having enough mental or emotional energy, no interest to work, or no motivation. In comparison, stress is about having and feeling too much, like having too much to do that it overwhelms you completely. Stress can lead to burnout, but they’re not quite the same thing.

Check out this flowchart from Kids Helpline for more on stress versus burnout. 

To manage burnout, a good place to begin is one’s wellbeing.

“Eat well, stay active, get enough sleep, and make sure you’re leading a balanced life,” Headspace senior clinical advisor Rupert Saunders told P.TV. “Have hobbies, take time to learn new skills, and stay connected to others.”

At work, start by knowing your rights. It’s easy to dismiss burnout as a result of high performance and productivity. Being busy is something to be proud of, skipping lunch is part of the grind. But at what cost, right?

“Know what you can and can’t say no to,” Grehan said. “Make changes if possible and find out what support you can access, whether that’s an employee assist program or counselling at uni.”

If you’re working from home part-time, however, managing burnout looks different.

Back in January, work management app Asana published its findings from a survey about burnout during lockdown.

As reported by The New Daily, out of the 2103 workers surveyed across Australia and New Zealand, 77 per cent of respondents said they had suffered from burnout. That’s six per cent above the global average.

So when it comes to working from home, it’s important to have and maintain a routine to help you stay grounded. It can be as simple as choosing a regular wake-up time, or creating a dedicated work zone.

Doing simple things like changing into a school uniform or some work clothes will indicate that you’re in the zone. And then repeating that process at the end of the day, whether that’s going for a walk around the block, or packing away your laptop will help you transition from your work or school life to your private life.

Seeking professional support can also help you navigate burnout, or figure out if something else is weighing on you.

As WHO defined it, burnout “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” In other words, if that sagging, unwavering feeling of burnout persists on the weekend – on a Saturday morning, or when you’re on a holiday away from your job – then it’s important you reach out for support.

“We do know that features of burnout can be present in people’s experiences of other mental health disorders,” Saunders said. “If you are worried that what you are feeling is more than what it is, if it’s more than burnout, then definitely seek a second opinion.”

If you don’t know where to begin, organisations like Kids Helpline and Headspace are there for you. Kids Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7 online and phone counselling service where young people, aged 5 to 25, can speak to a counsellor.

eHeadspace is the organisation’s online and phone support service, staffed by experienced youth mental health professionals. It provides young people (12 to 25) and carers with a safe, secure, and anonymous place to talk to a professional, wherever they may be.

“Seeking help doesn’t make you a burden, you’re not taking other professionals away from other things that are considered more important or more serious – this is important,” Grehan said. “When you speak out about burnout and be honest about your feelings, you’re being such a role model for other people as well.”

The idea that our problems aren’t big enough to deserve help only feeds into the stigma and shame already associated with mental health. It can make everyone feel like their problems don’t deserve help.

“You aren’t just helping yourself when you speak up, you’re helping others too,” Grehan said.

Kids Helpline is here for young people aged 5-25 – any time, any reason. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, send them an email or connect on WebChat if you need support.

People aged 12-25 seeking help for a mental health problem can also contact headspace at www.headspace.org.au.

Image: The Office