It comes on gradually. If it’s not addressed, it can lead down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of worsening exhaustion, disaffectedness, and even health-related problems and despair.
The World Health Organization calls it burnout syndrome. Many people think it’s getting stressed, but it’s beyond that, says Julie Kissee, a licensed clinical social worker and administrative director of the employee assistance program at Franciscan Health hospital in Hammond.
“Burnout occurs when you are faced with chronic and prolonged stress. It results in a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion,” says Jennifer Jimenez, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.
The effects of burnout are far-reaching: lack of motivation, poor job performance, depression, she says. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, wanting to stay home and not connect with people, feeling worthless and discounting successes, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, and changes in appetite, according to Kissee.
Burnout can cause health problems such as high blood pressure or addiction and lead to suicide, says Felicia Houston, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified work-adjustment specialist with UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial.
She noted that the medical profession can be especially hit hard by it. Last year the National Institutes of Health reported that more than half of physicians and one-third of nurses experience symptoms of burnout.
“You’re working the entire shift, often with no breaks, and can be constantly bombarded by emergencies,” says Houston, who knows the toll on health care professionals. “Sometimes I worked 17 hours in a psychiatric facility. If someone called off sick I worked even longer."
Houston cites the push toward electronic records and standardization for the burnout because it can make medical professions feel less respected and more detached.
Many physicians also don’t ask for help. “I spoke to a group of doctors who said they didn’t need (outside) help, because ‘we take care of ourselves,’" she recalls. "I told them, 'No, you don’t.' And the feeling may be, ‘But I save people.’ You have to save yourself first so you can save others."
Kissee says consulting with employee assistance programs can help professionals suffering from burnout. Some come in voluntarily, while others are referred by a co-worker or supervisor who sees that work performance has changed. “It’s not a matter of reprimand; it’s just needing to talk with someone," Kissee says. "At the first session they feel supported and have a safe place to talk things through and not feel judged. They start seeing things are better and feel they’re getting control back.”
Houston says employers can help by offering regularly scheduled wellness classes to teach methods of relieving stress, from the meditative to the physical.
Houston says flexible schedules can help prevent burnout, such as working 10-hour shifts for four days with three days off to recharge. Taking vacation time is important, though Houston notes people have told her they’ve lost their personal days because of short staffing.