When nothing turns out right

We all feel burnout sometimes, and the helping professions like that of physicians and psychologists are also not immune to it. Having a perfect work-life balance seems like an illusion. In 1970, American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals experienced by people working in “helping” professions. Later he came up with a self-help book on the same subject matter “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.”

According to a web definition, “helping professions” is “A profession that nurtures the growth of or addresses the problems of a person’s physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional or spiritual well-being, including medicine, nursing, psychotherapy, psychological counseling, social work, education, life coaching, and ministry.”

In most parts of Canada, doctors usually work for 100-hour workweeks, with up to seven monthly 24-hour call shifts. This does not include time spent on continuous education or professional development, attending various conferences, meetings, and seminars.

These professionals are buried under the expectations and pressures from clients, patients, staff, family, friends, and society overall. Your To-do list seems to be never-ending and all the tasks on the list requires immediate attention, you have started disliking your job and/or colleagues, and if you have a little tolerance towards stress, you may be heading towards burnout. Burnout is called a disease of modern time with more and more people becoming its victim. Burnout is not often recognized and detected until it too late.

Talking of the burnout in helping professions, one study revealed that Interns made substantially more serious medical errors when they worked frequent shifts of 24 hours or more than when they worked shorter shifts.

An examination of the burnout literature reveals burnout is prevalent in up to 45% of medical students and alarmingly 75% of residents, (depending on specialty), as well as practicing physicians.

Causes, Symptoms & Effects

Exhaustion: You feel drained emotionally and psychologically. You have no desire to go to the workplace.

Disengaged and demotivated from the job: You have started disliking your job, you shirk away from the responsibilities, and are always behind your deadlines. You start overcommitting and underperforming.

Impaired Concentration: You don’t feel like completing the tasks, and you find difficulty in attention to details.

Work-life imbalance: You feel that you are not able to devote time for friends and family and you are not happy with your performance too even when you are spending extra hours at the workplace. You struggle to create a balance between work (career advancement and ambition to excel) and life (health, family, pleasure & leisure)

Cynical and critical: You don’t want to have short talks with your colleagues and customers, you want to be alone, and any suggestion or positive criticism from your co-workers offends you

Anxiety and depression: The symptoms of burnout can be quite similar to that of stress or depression. You constantly feel a sense of lack of accomplishment.

Vulnerability to illnesses: Physical symptoms can include cold, chest pains, heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting, tension headaches, migraine headaches, and shortness of breath, low appetite or over-eating and chronic fatigue. This could also add up to insomnia.


Social psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson developed the most widely used instrument for assessing burnout, namely, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The Maslach Burnout Inventory operationalizes burnout as a three-dimensional syndrome made up of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Prevention and Treatment

Individual Level

Acknowledge the burnout: The first step in the prevention of burnout is to accept its existence in your life. Denying the fact would only take you to the extreme burnout. Identify the reasons of burnout and make a plan to address the issues properly.

Adequate Sleep: Set your priorities right, and one of the most important ones are getting adequate sleep. Lack of sleep affects your cognitive abilities and there is no substitute for a good night sleep.

Share your feelings: Sometimes the toughest thing about feelings is sharing them with others.  You may feel that you will be ridiculed or people won’t understand. Reach out to your trusted companions or a professional coach.

The Delegation of responsibilities: Remember “jack of all trades and master of none”? You can’t do all the things yourself. It’s ok to say no. The delegation of responsibilities is an important way of reducing burnout. Don’t think that you should be able to do everything alone.

Managing stress: Taking out some time for your hobbies or getting a hobby can give you a fresh dose of energy. Spending quality time with pets can help reduce stress.

Organizational Level

Framing a policy: The National Steering Committee on Resident Duty Hours provided direction, guidance and advice on the Towards a Pan-Canadian Consensus on Resident Duty Hours project and the political and strategic context of the project.

Training employees: It can be a combination of Burnout prevention programs, relaxation techniques, Cognitive behavioral therapy, and cognitive restructuring.

Right to disconnect: Recently France passed an empowerment law that requires French companies to assure their employees have a “right to disconnect” from out-of-hours email checking.

Show them your appreciation: Employees who are not appreciated often feel that their work and efforts are not recognized at all. So it is important to recognize and acknowledge the efforts employees put in.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP): An employee assistance program is a counseling service offered by employers to their employees, either in house, outsourcing or through insurance. Human resources should make an effort to inform every employee about the program. The Workplace can both act as a source of burnout and also a place to seek remedial action.


Burnout is not just a fashionable term used to describe a bad day at work. Understanding the factors of burnout is important and a strong collaboration between the employee and employer is important to prevent burnout. Helping Professionals, who are trusted as the saviors and protectors of the masses, can quickly fall into burnout trap. They should not hesitate to seek help if required.