Too intense a workload, paired with a toxic work environment and other sources of stress, can lead to burnout.
But aside from an overwhelming workload, other factors can also contribute to stress levels and lead to burnout.
For one person who spoke to MNT, these factors included financial stress, as well as instances of workplace bullying.
“I experienced burnout […] in the second year of my Ph.D., when there was just a constant level of stress underlying everything that I was doing in my job,” Robin told us.
“That was from the workload that I had, financial struggles that went along with it, some workplace bullying — my supervisor and my team were very unsupportive,” they added.
Douglas, who used to work a public-facing job in a healthcare environment, mentioned that his relationship with his managers also increased his risk of burnout.
“I think it was a mixture of unachievable targets and often having to deliver bad news to people as part of the job [that led me to burnout]. My managers did not deal with stress well either, which often had a knock-on effect to the rest of the team,” he told MNT.
Indeed, many of the people we spoke with explained that the example set by higher-ups and peers — who worked to exhaustion and did not put any time aside for mental or physical recovery — was an important contributing factor to engaging in behaviors that led to burnout and not recognizing this experience for what it was.
“I found it really hard to tell that I was experiencing burnout [when] I was, and when people told me that I was, I didn’t believe them,” said Sam. He entered burnout mode while juggling a full time postgraduate degree and a job in order to make ends meet.
“In a way, [I] kind of thought that I wasn’t working enough. […] You get pressure from almost all angles, and one of the things I think isn’t talked about enough [in examples of academic burnout] is that natural, peer-to-peer pressure that you get.”
“I’m thinking about the shared misery of working on a Saturday, past midnight, or posting photos on social media accounts [showing] that you’re working on the beach although you should be on holiday. That sort of pressure, I think, really gets in your head,” he added.
‘A growing epidemic of should-based thinking’
Diggory told MNT that many aspects of modern society drive people to allow their work life to seep into time they should be dedicating to leisure and personal relationships.
“From my observation, modern day society is driven so much by technology that we are experiencing an ever-on culture, where you can be online, contactable, and search for information 24/7 — for the human body and its sensory system, this can be overwhelming in large volumes,” she warned.
“In the context of business, while there are multiple benefits to being more globally connected than ever before, I’ve personally noticed a growing epidemic of should-based thinking. Because we can work anytime, it doesn’t mean we need to.”
“However,” she added, “unhelpful thinking patterns such as ‘I should be working more,’ ‘I should be checking my emails,’ ‘I should work late again, there’s just too much to do…’ can lead us to experience high levels of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety.”
How does burnout affect people?
Burnout can affect both physical and mental health and can be isolating.
“It was like I was swimming through a dark tunnel filled with custard. It sounds kind of stupid, but basically I was wading through this dense, horrible time.”
Burnout can affect well-being and quality of life in various ways. This can lead to poor physical and mental health, as well as a sense of isolation from other people. It can also contribute to anhedonia, which is a loss of pleasure in activities that used to be pleasurable.
Describing what the burnout zone looks like to them, Robin told us, “I was working myself into the ground for a long time and stayed up until 2 a.m., not eating properly, just focusing on research and work constantly, and giving all of my time and energy to that without spending any time on things that I used to enjoy doing.”
They also added that they had become quite isolated. Sam described a similar state of isolation, as did Sarah, another person who spoke to MNT.
She exclaimed: “[Burnout] affected every part of my life! It impacted my ability to concentrate and focus on my work, I couldn’t sleep, I was constantly worried about work but felt unable to actually do any, it led to an anxious procrastination where I was constantly worrying about work but unable to get anything productive accomplished.”