What is burnout?

As of 2019, the World Health Organisation has classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. This means that while it isn’t considered an illness in itself, it is something that can affect us through work and can cause us to seek medical attention. While burnout is usually related to work, it can also come from familial or social responsibilities such as being a carer.

Burnout is a result of prolonged, uncontrolled or uncontrollable stress, and comes as a result of lots of things that cause stress. Feeling a lack of control in your work, having an imbalance between work and home life, and feeling overworked and undervalued, all contribute to stress, and without a change to circumstance, burnout. MAS’ wellbeing research indicates that a lot of these factors are affecting advisers at present, so burnout is a real risk within the advice sector.

How is burnout different from stress?

Stress can be a normal part of life and isn’t necessarily a negative by itself – sometimes stressful things happen and it is possible to be resilient to them and move through them. Indeed, sometimes limited stress is what can push us to achieve more than we thought possible, a state called eustress. However, if we are under stress too often or for too long, it can start to cause us harm. Stress can be characterised as feeling like there is too much going on: too much change, work or pressure; too many deadlines and demands. Burnout is when stress has become so chronic that it uses up all of our resources. Rather than there being too much, the issue becomes having too little – not enough time, energy, or motivation. This is when the symptoms of stress start to turn into the signs of burnout.

What are the signs of burnout?

The WHO notes three key indicators for burnout.

  • Feeling exhausted or depleted of energy, feeling overwhelmed by tiredness and lacking emotional resources or reserves.
  • Feeling increasingly distant, cynical or negative, particularly around work. Burnout causes disengagement and makes it very hard to address or even recognise problems.
  • Reduced professional efficacy, perhaps as a result of procrastination, lack of motivation, or a loss of confidence as a result of negative self-image.

What can be done about burnout?

Burnout is not something that can get better by itself without the causes of the stress changing – though if that change is made, burnout is reversible. We recognise that in the current circumstances, many advisers are stretched thin. Sector-wide, systemic change is the main way for a meaningful difference to come about for many staff in the sector. For this reason, much of what an individual can do to address burnout includes things like participating in research contributing to the Adviser Wellbeing Index, responding to consultations on issues in the sector, and pushing in whatever capacity you can manage for change and better conditions. MAS is advocating for change to make things fairer for people in debt and those who work with them.

As well as being reversed by making a change to the stressors you are experiencing, burnout can be helped, and, importantly, prevented. Managing stress as it arises can stop it from building up. For tips on this, you can sign up for our Stress Management and Resilience training. In general though, trying to keep stress low includes:

  • Sharing problems with a friend or colleague
  • Delegating or asking for help with workload when feeling overwhelmed
  • Practicing self-care
  • Trying to take regular breaks from work; taking time away from the desk during working hours, as well as taking the time to fully switch off from work at the end of the day and at weekends
  • Doing regular exercise such as walking, running or going to the gym
  • Socialising and connecting with friends, loved ones or your wider community