FALLS CHURCH, Virginia –
Feelings of burnout are common – when work and other demands in your life get too intense, or if you don't get enough time to rest, you can start feeling physically, emotionally, or mentally exhausted.
The symptoms are real, yet doctors say burnout is not a clinical disorder.
"It's not a diagnosable condition," said Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Gross, flight commander at the 633d Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia.
Instead, it is "a syndrome that results in response to running out of energy and emptying the tank," Gross said. It occurs when an individual has an imbalance between "responsibility and task compared to the opportunity to rest and recharge."
Some service members may be at high risk for burnout, regardless of their career field, especially when individual or unit "op-tempo" gets very high.
The good news is that burnout can be mitigated. There are numerous steps that individuals and leaders can take to reduce burnout and its impact.
How can you tell if you're burned out?
"You might see reduced stress tolerance, increased irritability, decreased job performance, or relationship stress as a result of running on empty as a result of burning out," Gross said.
Additionally, you might be at risk for burning out when you don't take time to take care of yourself, set emotional boundaries, or establish a healthy work-life balance, said Nancy Skopp, a clinical psychologist and lead researcher for the Health Services & Population Research program at the Defense Health Agency's Psychological Health Center of Excellence.
There are three "key dimensions" of burnout, she says:
- An overwhelming exhaustion.
- Feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job.
- A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Skopp describes burnout as an "individual stress experience within a social context."
Burnout "appears to be particularly common in unsupportive work environments characterized by low morale and teamwork, inefficient workplace processes, excessive workloads, and negative leadership behavior," Skopp explained.
Any part of the military community can pose a risk for burnout.
"Every career field has unique challenges and unique resources," Gross said. "I don't know that there's one particular area, which is at greater risk or vulnerability."
What Can Leaders Do?
It's especially important that leaders pay attention to their teams.
Leaders should make sure that they "have a good understanding of the demands on their troops," Gross said, and that "they do a good job of helping mitigate that burden on their troops, at the same time as managing the downtime and the recovery time for their troops."
Skopp says some tips for leaders trying to minimize burnout might include:
- Monitor work environment and morale
- Cultivate workplace cohesion and a culture of teamwork
- Use rewards and incentives in a consistent and fair manner
- Provide resources to promote self-care
- Monitor workloads and ensure enough time in the workday to complete required tasks
- Reduce inefficient workplace processes
- In some cases, a key step might be asking a simple question.
"Ask them what they need and help them to get it," Gross suggests.
"All too often, I think that, as leaders, we give airmen what we think they need in order to be okay, and what we think they needed is not what they need."
It's important that individuals recognize the symptoms of burnout and address them when needed.
"When a person begins to notice fatigue, physical and mental exhaustion, poor motivation, and emotional withdrawal, these are signs to seek help and guidance from a mentor or mental health professional," Skopp said.
It's also important for colleagues, friends, and family to support people who might be displaying those symptoms, Skopp said.
Symptoms may vary among individuals.
For example, you might have a person who's very outgoing and gregarious who becomes withdrawn and quiet. "That could be a sign that they're burning out," Gross said.
"But you also might have a person that's always just a quiet person, so that person being quiet wouldn't necessarily be a sign that they're burning out," he said.
Key warning signs would include "a marked negative change in mood or interpersonal interactions or ... decreased work performance," Gross said.
Skopp said "irritability and frustration" are also signs of burnout. And since workplace problems often can "bleed" into a person's personal life, burnout can fuel negative behaviors such as alcohol misuse, overeating, or prompt withdrawal from healthy activities socializing or exercise, Skopp said.
Individuals should try to take care of themselves to prevent or reduce burnout. Skopp provided the following tips:
- Eat well – maximize nutrition, minimize processed foods
- Make time for relaxation, leisure, and fun activities
- Exercise regularly – even if it's just 10 or 15 minutes on a busy day
- Develop good sleep habits – aim for between seven and nine hours and set up a wind-down ritual to facilitate rest
- Establish protective boundaries and respect your emotional needs
- Separate work life and personal life
- Cultivate a sense of humor
- Build strong working relationships with co-workers
- Recognize the signs of distress and seek help when needed
If you or someone you care about feels burned out, talk to your health care provider or someone you trust for help. Find out how to optimize your performance to prevent burnoutArticle on Optimize Your Performance to Prevent Burnout on the army.mil website and reach total force fitness by connecting your eight dimensions of fitness.