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 some doctors say burnout is not a clinical disorder.
“It’s not a diagnosable condition,” Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Gross, flight commander at the 633rd Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Hampton, Virginia, said.
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 operations tempo gets very high.
“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, 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, said.
According to Skopp, there are three “key dimensions” of burnout:
- 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.”
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.
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.”
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
- 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