Burnout is a serious syndrome that is unfortunately affecting many carers today. I equate burnout with a person who appears almost “heartless,” a person who no longer seems to care–about anything. People who are burned out are detached, disconnected, disengaged, and dispassionate–they have lost their sense of purpose and are losing their moments. In a way, burnout is a widespread disenchantment with one’s work.
When we are enchanted, we are enamored with something—we value it as something worthwhile. We are more apt to be engaged, interested, and motivated because we like whatever it is we are doing. Conversely, when we are disenchanted, we are more likely to be disinterested and unmotivated. We are emotionally empty—heart empty—and suffer with a generalized apathy. It is a form of suffering that transforms our very being into an almost non-being kind of existence. It is when we become routinely robotic.
Of all the professions, nursing is the one that has been most studied in relation to the phenomenon of burnout. Why is that the case? Well, there are many things that I think stack the deck in our favor for developing burnout, including the way nurses are educated (a topic I rant often enough about but it would take too much space and time here). There is also the fact that it is still a predominantly female profession, and lastly, there are the oh, so many, not so nice things that contribute to an unhealthy work environment (such as inadequate staffing, lack of resources, poor management, and relational problems, ie. bullying, incivility and sometimes even mobbing).
Burnout is said to be the result of cumulative frustration with one’s workplace environment, and for nurses, many of the things that contribute to our frustration are relational in nature. They have to do with whom we work, how we interact and communicate with each other, and whether we are respected and valued for what it is we do. Since a lot of the things nurses do may not be acknowledged or valued, many nurses who began their careers as very compassionate, competent carers, over time seem to value less the caring aspects of their own work. It is then that the technical skills and the lab values might become more important than the human-to-human connection. I think of this as disenchantment in action. This is when the science (of nursing and indeed any caring profession) is likely to become more important than the art, for caring is indeed an art. As a result, the science becomes more visible, while the art is discernibly less visible and in some cases seems to disappear altogether. When that occurs, with it comes burnout.
It would seem that burnout is a kind of defense mechanism similar to pulling your hand away from something hot. Shut the switch, pull the plug, become numb, and protect yourself. The difference and the irony is that in flicking the shutoff switch, we actually hurt ourselves as well as others. Carers are meant to care-it is who we are and what we do. When we no longer enjoy our work we are no longer being authentic to our own nature. We lose ourselves.
There are a great many signs and symptoms that may manifest when one is suffering from burnout-the cardinal sign is said to be physical and emotional exhaustion. I especially like nurse Melanie Chenevert’s list, which includes whining and bitching, among other appropriately labeled things; however, all jokes aside, burnout is serious stuff. The one thing that I think is a sure sign of burnout is when you really hate getting up and going to work. At that point you are in genuine trouble, and, unfortunately, so are your coworkers, your patients, and your loved ones. That is because unhappiness and apathy become part of a negative feedback loop–an unfavorable butterfly effect.
Researchers continue to report that a great many nurses and other carers are burning out. And we all know that burnt out, unhappy people are less likely to do their work well. But there are things we can do to get back the joy in our lives and in our work (see the ART model for a simple three step guide www.qualitycaring.org). It is more than time for us to tend to our own wounds; we need to do it for the sake of us–carers, and for those who are trusting us to care.
As an aside, for me much of this is about energy and transformation (and butterflies), a topic you can read a great deal about on my other, much more philosophical website: www.energy-enigma.com (based on my doctoral research in the 1990s–the published book is still floating around). Essentially it is about how we actualize our potentials as human beings.
*Parts excerpted from my book on compassion fatigue and burnout in nursing, first published in late 2012 by Springer.*