What Is Burnout? (Is Burnout a Real Condition?)
Yes, the international medical community believes that burnout is a real physical condition! So don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a “made up” thing.
According to the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and the World Health Organization (1), burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” that occurs when an employee isn’t handling workplace stress well — to the point where they seek out medical attention to address it.
To be “officially” burnout, the individual must experience or be demonstrating three things:
- Unexplained tiredness or exhaustion (“energy depletion”)
- “Increased mental distance from one’s job” — basically, feeling very poorly or cynical toward their specific, current employment
- Unexplained loss of performance
When someone does experience burnout, it’s considered a symptom of a larger environmental or psychological issue. Burnout is not considered an official medical “disease” in and of itself, the same way something like depression is.
That’s the medical definition, though. How can you tell if you’re suffering burnout in real life — not a textbook?
9 Strange Signs of Burnout You May Not Expect
We’ve combed some very interesting corners of the internet to bring you these 9 signs of burnout, especially for therapists and healthcare professionals.
- Blurred vision — often a result of high levels of adrenaline associated with ongoing chronic stress. (2)
- You’re using more negative words — and having trouble remembering positive ones. (3)
- “Health anxiety,” during which you become worried about improbable health conditions for no conscious reason. (For example, you may randomly think, “I might have a tumor,” when you have no history of cancer and have no physical symptoms.) (4)
- A complete and unexplained loss of energy when you physically stop or rest. (5)
- The industry jokes aren’t funny anymore. They’re no longer a bonding experience or an expression of temporary frustration. Instead, the jokes take on a new dimension, causing you to see therapy and healthcare in general through an increasingly pessimistic and cynical lens. (6)
- Your patients and their problems are blurring together more and more. This may be “depersonalization,” which happens when you begin to detach yourself and your actions from those around you. (7)
- You’re breaking out in cold sweats at the oddest times, as intrusive thoughts about work and your patients show up more and more. This sudden sweat is due to increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. (Fun fact: Engineers have made a piece of wearable tech that detects how high your cortisol levels are in your sweat — which could help doctors determine whether and when you’re experiencing burnout!) (8)
- You actively seek out more and more exciting things for that shot of adrenaline to give you enough energy to complete even basic tasks. You may also experience sudden “crashes” as soon as the body relaxes and adrenaline production stops.
- You’re getting worse hangovers from less alcohol — at least, that’s what the internet claims could happen. (9) More concretely, you could just be indulging in substances more than you previously did. Both are signs of burnout. (10)
You should talk to your doctor to rule out physical problems if you have some or most of these symptoms. If, after examination and tests, they can’t find another issue that you hadn’t known about previously, then you may be dealing with burnout.
Of course, in order to fix burnout, you’ll need to address the root cause. Officially, burnout is caused by your work — either your personal practice, or your position at a larger clinic or hospital.
So, you’ll need to “fix” your work, to fix your burnout and get back to loving your profession.
Luckily, there are ways you can do that, whether you’re an independent therapist or working for a big healthcare organization. But, we’ll get to that next time!