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Burnout isn't simply caused by being overworked and jam-packed schedules.

| By Rachael Thompson | Wellness

The Most Common Cause of Burnout Is Often Overlooked, According to Experts

Burnout isn't simply caused by being overworked and jam-packed schedules.

When someone tells us they’re burnt out, we often assume it's the result of long work hours or a jam-packed schedule. We imagine an uninspired, stressed office worker, who has no time for the fun things in life. Personal wellbeing goes out the window and an endless cycle of Uber Eats orders, cups of coffee, and dirty washing ensues.

But in reality, this doesn't paint the whole picture.

In a recent episode of the podcast Best Friend Therapy on burnout, psychotherapist Emma Reed Turrell highlighted a cause of burnout which often gets overlooked; a loss of connection. "Loneliness, isolation, and burnout are closely linked," she says. When speaking about the antidote to burnout, Reed Turrell says; “I think it’s primarily connection with self, but I think we see self through the connections we have with others." It's an issue a significant proportion of us face and has costly consequences.

A 2022 survey of 15,000 workers across 15 countries by McKinsey Health found that a quarter of employees experienced burnout symptoms, and The World Economic Forum estimates that burnout's global price tag is $322 billion.

We reached out to Reed Turrell and other experts to find out the role connection plays in burnout, how it shows up, and what we can do about it.

What is burnout?

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as; “A special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. ”According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is characterised by "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job... and reduced professional efficacy.”

Burnout and a lack of connection

The cause of burnout is often assumed to be long working hours or juggling too many tasks, and while these can contribute, they typically aren’t the primary cause.

According to Reed Turrell, the role connection plays in burnout is often overlooked.

“I think being busy and overworked is not necessarily the cause of burnout, but it’s certainly part of the distraction that might stop us noticing that we’re burning out in the first place,” she shares with Bed Threads Journal. “When we’re burnt out, we often don’t notice how we feel at all and so we make choices that might not be healthy or sustainable. We lose our connection to others and the support they might offer, we lose sight of what matters and, most importantly, we lose the connection with ourselves.”

In an article published by The Conversation, Clinical Psychologist Shahieda Jansen explains the relationship between burnout and connection like this: “Though some people experience higher levels of stress than others, they may be less likely to burnout because they are more frequently connected with what is significant in their lives." So while you may be feeling rundown because of a heavy workload, at the very core of burnout is a lack of authentic connection and meaning with yourself, with your team, and with your work.

Why is connection so important for our health?

When we feel connected, it benefits our social well-being, emotional health, and professional success. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says connection can; “Improve your ability to recover from stress, anxiety, and depression” and therefore “promote healthy eating, physical activity, and weight. Improve sleep, well-being, and quality of life.”

Feeling isolated and lacking purpose can be extremely debilitating and impact our resilience. According to clinical psychotherapist Noosha Anzab, “Relationships always matter – and they matter significantly when set in the workplace context, particularly when they are of high quality.”

What are the symptoms of burnout?

According to The Black Dog Institute, burnout encompasses a wide range of symptoms including:

  • Low energy, motivation, or mood.
  • Feeling isolated or trapped.
  • Feeling cynical or disengaged from work.
  • Decreased life satisfaction.
  • Procrastination.
  • Irritability.
  • Feeling exhausted or drained.
  • Disrupted sleep.
  • Physical responses like headaches and body pain.

“It’s a bit of the freeze response and a bit of the flight response, and we can feel totally floored by it both physically and psychologically,” Anzab says. “Low self-worth due to feeling inadequate, ineffective, and unaccomplished are also common."

How to prevent and treat burnout

It’s natural to think that when you’re feeling burnt out, a nice holiday will give you the reset you need. Unfortunately, a few self-care days or even a trip to Italy won’t do much to help if you’ve hit breaking point. (We’ll still take that holiday though!)

As Reed-Turrell shared on Instagram, treating burnout might not be as simple as we’d like it to be, but it’s possible when we connect with ourselves; “There simply isn’t a quick, straightforward fix for burnout, but what we can do is listen to the signals our bodies are giving us about what needs to change, and go from there,” she says.

If you're burnt out, you need to prioritise yourself and ask: Do I find my job fulfilling? Do I enjoy the work that I do? Am I adequately supported in the workplace? The latter is extremely important.

“[Our managers] prevent burnout simply by keeping us feeling like we are a part of the bigger picture, alleviating burnout significantly,” Anzab explains. “When we feel as though our managers care about us and have positive regard towards us, burnout is reduced by 70%. When our managers or leaders support us – whether directly or indirectly, we have a type of psychological protection. It’s astounding how much better we are for it when we know our managers have our backs, actively listen to us, and prioritise our physical and mental loads, the support goes a tremendous amount of way.”

Beyond workplace connection, prioritising connection to self should also take precedence. “When we operate in our self-energy and prioritise our wellbeing through compassion and care, we can prioritise relationships with others, have healthy boundaries and can meet our physical and emotional needs which are imperative to burnout prevention,” Anzab shares. She also suggests:

  • Saying no to commitments you can’t fulfil.
  • Prioritising our physical health by having frequent breaks.
  • Being physically active.
  • Having an ergonomic set-up.
  • Limitations around workplace drinking culture.
  • Sunup/sundown work policies.
  • Frequent check-ins.
  • Healthy eating habits.
  • Healthy sleep habits.

For Reed Turrell, the starting point for working with burnout recovery clients is "rediscovering those lost feelings and needs, and piecing back together an identity. It is this that will guide us to act appropriately and find balance, and fulfil an essential function of self-preservation in the future."

The takeaway

Burnout isn't simply caused by overwork. Disconnection, dissatisfaction in the workplace and a lack of purpose are at its core.

As Anzab puts it: “The better quality of the relationship we have with our co-workers, the more valued we feel, and the more valued we feel, the more we enjoy our work. It’s a circular theme, the more we enjoy our work, the less burnout symptoms we experience."

This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualised health advice. If you are concerned about your health and well-being, please speak to your GP, who will advise on the correct treatment plan. You can also call Lifeline 24/7 for mental health support on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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