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Understanding burnout

What is burnout?

Burnout may be best understood as the result of prolonged stress, leading to feeling fatigued, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, a state of exhaustion and an inability to maintain interest, or motivation, in areas that were once engaging, or that the individual was deeply committed to.

Source: A Needs Assessment: Stress management and burnout prevention for case workers and human rights activists working on issues of gender and sexuality in India – download here

This article from Everyday Feminism describes burnout as a situation “when you give more energy and compassion than you receive, and as a result, you lose sight of the light of hope at the end of the tunnel.” For those in people work, “this loss of hope can be detrimental to both our work flow and our spiritual well-being.”

Burnout is not a one-off thing, in that someone feels burnt out today but feels fine tomorrow. Nor is burnout sudden and obviously noticeable. It builds up slowly and can be prevented if identified and stemmed early. This is why it is easier to work to prevent burnout rather than address it after one feels burnt out – and why the responsibility of self-care and stress management is not just an individual’s, and conditions of the organisation/collective/environment one is in have to be conducive.

How do I know if I’m burnt out?

Dr. Beverly Potter was one of the earliest academics working on overcoming job burnout and created the Beverly Potter quiz. The quiz can be a good indicator of factors to think about when exploring whether you are burnt out with your work, and what kind of changes to consider. It is only an indicator, and not a fool proof method to determine burnout – only you can decide that!

Note: this link is only for personal use:

Various emotions, feelings and experiences have been associated with burnout among those in people work: guilt, anger, sadness, a sense of hopelessness or that “things will never change”, disconnectedness with the cause, work or people one is working with. Some others may find it extremely difficult to draw boundaries to be able to see themselves as separate from the people they work with. Some may find it difficult to stay motivated in their work.

For many, it plays up in their health too, with difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, hair or weight loss, and more.

Burnout looks different across individuals.

We want to reiterate the importance of collective care in managing stress and preventing burnout, because it may be difficult for someone burnt out to know that they need to work on it – or know where to start!

What are key steps to begin addressing burnout?

Recognising burnout – burnout can quietly creep in as it is often built up stress manifesting over time. Our worksheets may be able to guide you in thinking about your stressors, how you feel, think and behave when you are stressed, and whether self-care techniques are helping. If you believe that the stress has remained the same despite regular self-care, despite changing some parts of your environment (e.g., switching to a different project or staying away from field work for a while), you can consider your risk of being burnt out as high.

It may be difficult for someone who is burnt out to recognise it and then take action. If one is fed up, has lost motivation, or feels hopeless or disconnected, it takes great energy to address the issue. This is why workplaces or collectives have to be aware of symptoms of burnout and be aware if a member may be on the brink of burnout. It is also in the interests of organisations and collectives to be aware of the realities of burnout and its effects – both on individuals and the organisation/collective. For instance, burnout could reduce members’ ability to be interested or motivated in areas that once deeply engaged or inspired them. Instituting policies in the workplace/collective to help members manage stress and prevent burnout are essential. Read more on collective care here.

A first step is identifying the source of your burnout – whether it is solely at work, at home, one’s own health, and seeing whether there are immediate changes in your control that you can make. Some questions to think about, especially in cases where the burnout is purely to do with the work or workplace:

  1. Can you speak with team members or managers to discuss your burnout and seek suggestions on addressing it – both for things you can do, and that your organisation or team members can do?
  2. Can your organisation help you manage your work effectively, and/or redistribute your tasks? This might help reduce your workload to make you feel less stressed. Or can they make some changes in terms of who you work with, help set boundaries that reduce/remove your stressors at your workplace (be it due to an individual you work with, or a regular or ongoing situation)?
  3. Do you need training or capacity strengthening to be able to better handle your work? Do you need to speak to your team/supervisor to get role clarity? Are there sources of non-judgmental therapy or counsel you can avail of that could help you understand what you are going through?
  4. How does your work align with your values and goals? Why do you do what you do?Can you take a long leave or quit the job if it does not match your values, your interests, or is toxic?

For the longer term, it is a good idea to invest time and energy in developing a self-care plan to manage stress by identifying various tools/techniques for self-care, and building them into a routine. Check out Ideas for you to build your own self-care toolkit!

Identify the diverse support systems that are non-judgmental and safe – whether it is friends, family, workspaces, or collectives – where burnout can be discussed.

Recognise when external help in the form of therapy and medication may be required, with the assistance of the support systems described above who can be on our side. Here are wonderful comics from Agents of Ishq that explain the differences between various types of mental health professionals.

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