Burnout: how to recognize it and what to do

Ever heard of "burnout?" At some point, we've all known someone – a co-worker, spouse or friend – who's been through it. Anyone who's recovered from burnout will tell you the same thing: If I'd only known, I would've done something sooner.

It's actually possible to prevent or minimize the negative repercussions of burnout. But to do so, you've got to be able to recognize the symptoms and, when necessary, take action!

It's no laughing matter…

Let's start by getting a few things straight. Just because someone's been "down in the dumps" (even if it's been a few weeks) doesn't mean they're suffering from a full-blown burnout. It's normal to feel depressed from time to time. Problems at work, a separation or bereavement can be overwhelming. And you can't just shrug them off… you've got to take the time to deal with them properly.

How can you tell the difference between clinical depression or burnout and a simple case of the blues? Intensity. If someone's burnt out, they can become depressed (sad) or anxious to the point that it affects everything they do at work, and it can last for weeks at a time.

Someone suffering from burnout won't feel like eating, will have trouble sleeping and will generally feel "down." At work, they can be irritable. They also tend to overreact. Sometimes anxiety can cause breathing problems, panic attacks, or hyperventilation.

Getting help

The worst thing to do when it comes to burnout is to do nothing at all! Once you realize something's wrong, you need to act right away.

The first thing to do is go see a doctor. They're qualified to assess your health and determine the right type of medical care for your particular situation. In some cases, they may refer you to another healthcare professional, like a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

Most large companies offer an employee assistance program that provides confidential 24/7 telephone access to a qualified psychologist. This program is a great illustration of a preventive service than can be a real lifesaver.

Sometimes a co-worker can be spiralling towards a burnout without even realizing it. It may be more obvious to that person's co-workers, who see them deteriorating or are on the receiving end of their mood swings. If you get the chance, it's a good idea to talk to the person and ask how things are. Sometimes just a few caring words are all it takes to make someone realize something's wrong.

Adjustment and work

What causes burnout? Medically, it's defined as an adjustment disorder with work inhibition… the 2 keywords being: adjustment and work. Something isn't right and it's showing at work.

Many things can cause burnout: overwork, lack of recognition, conflict with one or more co-workers, etc. Every job has its own quirks and stress factors. Burnout happens when someone can't adjust to difficult circumstances. Over time, this nagging inability to adjust drains the person's energy.

1/3 of all disabilities

Get to know yourself to prevent burnout! Some people are better at dealing with adversity than others. Remember, we're all cut from a different cloth. Clinical depression, for instance, is more common in some families than in others. And the emotional impact of an event will be different depending on whether it happens on its own or on top of other situations (separation, overwork, conflicts at work, etc.).

Of all the disability claims Desjardins Financial Security receives in a year, more than 1/3 stem from mental health problems. Mental illness has been on the rise since the early 80s, and burnout is one of these modern illnesses.

(Thanks to Dr. Michel Brochu, Desjardins Financial Security's consulting psychiatrist, for his contribution to this article.)