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Whether you love your job or not there will be times when you experience exhaustion; when you are disillusioned, when you want to hurt the people you work with; throw a tantrum; or hide under your desk under your cloak of invisibility.

For most of us, we have these moments, these days, maybe these weeks however, we can bounce back after a good belly laugh; a day away; putting our phone away and allowing ourselves to switch off.   We get a sense of resolution from breaking the cycle of doing, doing more and being available to all the people all the time.

In a healthy human, we have bounced back.  Some people call this resilience.  It’s like we take a big deep breath, remove ourselves from the cumulative stressors for a short period of time then we are good to go again.

However, for those of us who have lived in Burn-Out, it’s the bouncing backbit that goes missing.  We find that our bounce has gone flat, just like an inflated ball with a hole in it.  So instead of being able to walk into our next meeting after a long weekend thinking – Throw it at me people, I am BACK; we tremble, refuse to make eye contact, live in fear that we may burst into to tears, or worse ( well, it was worse for me) start yelling at people in frustration and anger.

One of the manifestations of being burned out is the lack of bounce back.   I often describe this as feeling like someone let all the life force out of me not unlike the plug being pulled away from a bath.

A lot of people ask me, am I depressed? Am I burned out – is there a difference?

It’s a really interesting question – what is the difference between Depression and Burn-Out?  To be frank the international psychiatric community is still having a discussion amongst itself about this.  In an article published in 2018 by Schonfeld IS, Bianchi R, Palazzi S., we learn that the features of Depression and Burn-Out can look really similar.  Their research is useful in helping us understand the potential for progression if we don’t apprehend and address Burn- Out once we become aware of it.

Emotional exhaustion, the core of burnout, itself reflects a combination of depressed mood and fatigue/loss of energy and correlates very highly with other depressive symptoms. Work-related risk factors for burnout are also predictors of depression. Individual risk factors for depression (e.g., past depressive episodes) are also predictors of burnout. Overall, burnout is likely to reflect a “classical” depressive process unfolding in reaction to unresolvable stress.

In short, a possible reason why Burn-Out can look and feel like depression is because it’s quite possibly a subset of depression potentially leading to a more generalised depressive experience.

If you continue to walk on a broken foot, you will continue to limp, have swelling, experience pain.  If you do this for long enough your limping will cause your back, hips and knees to ache because you aren’t walking properly.  Your sleep will be disturbed because of pain, so your ability to cope with the pain will be diminished.  Walk on a broken foot for long enough and your whole body will experience the consequences.

Live in Burn- Out without addressing the issues for long enough, well the research suggests, your mental health will be in danger and may possibly lead to a depressive episode.

Now depression is not a death sentence.  One in 5 people you know will have experienced some type of mental health condition, so it’s common and it is a disease we can recover from.  But why would we let it get to that point?   Why would we let our partners, our children, our colleagues get to the point of a medical condition?    I’m pretty sure no one reading this article is going to say, Its OK Jo, I’ll recover from my Major Depressive episode after I win the next major project.    If you are reading this article chances are you know that two things are likely to happen in this scenario;

  1. You won’t win the project because you haven’t got the capacity to work at your peak performance.
  2. You win the project and then you can’t execute because of your deteriorating mental health then you get to experience all the shame and guilt and sense of failure that goes along with that.

And in my 20+ years of helping people return to work following illness and injury I see way more people who chose #2  that lead to a much more disabling problem than they ever expected.

I’ve worked with women who had international multi-million dollar businesses who had won prestigious awards go bankrupt due to what started out as Burn-Out.

I’ve worked with women as young as 28 who were unable to work for 7 years losing their license to practice in their chosen profession they had not yet paid their university fees for, due to Burn-Out.

I’ve worked with family-run businesses than having disintegrated in their family relationships because no one stopped the founders in their fast track to psychosis and hospitalisation during their Burn-Out.

Please don’t think these consequences are beyond you.  They are not.  Of these stories, every single person has expressed to me that they knew well before they had to leave work that they had been unwell for about 2 years. Yet they just kept pushing through.

The types of symptoms that consistent with both Burn-out and depression are:

  • Problems with concentration
  • Memory issues
  • Sleeping issues
  • Feeling exhausted

If you or someone you know is describing these types of issues maybe it’s time to help them interrupt their cycle with care and compassion.

  1. Simply ask them how they are doing. Do this is a non-threatening manner. Remember people who are living in Burn-Out will already be feeling less than and will be defensive.
  2. Ask them to have lunch with you in the fresh air away from the workplace.  Just be together.
  3. If you are in a leadership position, check to leave records. Do you have someone who has a lot of accumulated leave or someone who has a lot of absences? Leave from work records are a great way to help people see in black and white how their symptoms may be affecting them.
  4. Just be kind. I can assure you when I have lived in Burn-Out,  when people are kind to me, it breaks down a lot of the barriers I put up to protect myself.
  5. Build trust. This takes time and consistency.  It took someone months possibly years to get to the point where you are noticing they aren’t their normal self, so don’t expect that you can make them change in 1 conversation

If you have read this article today and it has triggered you or you realise that you need help, please take action now.  Don’t leave this article thinking that this doesn’t apply to you.  Call a trusted friend; reach out to your GP or to a health professional. Please don’t ignore this.  The world needs what you have to offer.


Who is Jo Muirhead?

Jo Muirhead

Jo is passionate about helping people make work, work well.  Jo is an engaging speaker, coach and the founder of PurpleCo a team of specialized allied health professionals who help people reclaim their lives and return to work following injury, illness and trauma.   Jo is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial Clinician.

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