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Understanding Burnout in Helpers, Caregivers, and Others

Man with never-ending, frustrating, conflicting tasks burned out, needs therapy

Burned out?

We have all heard friends, family, and colleagues say about work or personal matters, “I’m so burned out.” Then they tell us the reasons. Nearly all of us have done this, in addition to having heard this. This kind of burnout talk is a signal. It lets us know when situations have progressed beyond annoyances to seemingly unmanageable. Understanding burnout is necessary before it can be treated.

Often, the response (unspoken or spoken) from others is: “Deal”…with no suggestions given. Although everyone may have had a time when they complained too much, burnout is more than simple complaining. It should be taken seriously. People who have the most passion for a project, person, job, etc., are the most vulnerable to burnout. Also, burnout can lead to the end of careers, loved activities, or relationships, or to significant problems within them.

What is burnout?

One definition (Maslach) is a sense of “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.”

  • Emotional exhaustion is the sense that we cannot care more. We feel depleted and at risk of losing emotional control.
  • Depersonalization has to do with lack of grounding and a feeling of unreality. It is also an unhelpful form of detachment. With this, we begin to care and empathize less. We become less dedicated or more easily resentful.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment covers both actual accomplishment and perceived accomplishment. The first has to do with lowered quality or quantity. The second is a feeling that one is a ‘failure’.

To give further understanding of burnout, there are two main arenas. The first is work. The second is personal responsibilities and devotions. The second includes highly valued activities, a friendship or intimate relationship, or helping / care-giving for family or friends.

Time pressure can lead to burnout and a need for counseling ...

Never enough hours in the day?

Who can experience burnout?

Anyone. However, caregivers, health professionals, therapists, counselors, clergy, and other service-oriented people are quite vulnerable. They may also have a lifelong tendency to simply do what needs to be done, especially for others, and may feel bad or guilty if they cannot. These jobs and responsibilities are just hard.

Can anything be done about burnout?

Another definition of burnout (Gentry & Baranowsky) is a “chronic condition of perceived demands outweighing perceived resources.” This definition is important for what to do about burnout. Often, those who help and care for others feel trapped. They have worked hard to reach their position and have no current options. Helpers imagine mourning something they loved. They blame themselves for being ‘weak’. Their personal ethic and situation presses for them to keep helping / working despite exhaustion and reduced effectiveness.

So, what cand be done in therapy for burnout?

Feeling trapped and unable to exercise control at all, is partly perceptual. The real weight of our troubles and difficulties is added to our past negative learning experiences. That can lead to unhelpful perceptual angles or frames. With burnout, we frame the external pressures as ‘no-win’. To treat burnout, we need a switch  to an internal focus on self-care and self-regulation. Another part of understanding burnout is especially valuable for treatment: a healthy dose of self-compassion to counteract excess self-blame, guilt, and shame.

We can try to self-treat, of course. However, Burnout is based on getting stuck in the certainty equation: “out-of-control situation = my will and core values are irrelevant = I must avoid or try to force change.” Notice the impulse of ‘must’. That is a signal that emotions are at work–see my post on emotions.

It can take a close friend, trusted family member, or a psychotherapist / counselor to encourage a new perspective and coping methods. However, friends and family may themselves feel helpless and externally controlled, or might be a little too upset that you are upset. Thus, help is best absorbed in a professional therapeutic relationship.

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