Burnout is now recognized as a legitimate medical disorder by much of mainstream medicine and has even been given its own ICD-10 code. Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.

However, burnout is mostly related to work. It is prevalent within the human services field, due in part to the high-stress work environment and emotional demands of the job. As for aid workers, add the security context and the difficulty of working in emergencies.

Burnout and its different stages

Four stages are usually recognized:

At first, you realize that you are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted: in the evening, after work, you find yourself to be “semi-comatose” and you are no longer able to do whatever helps you relax. You feel that the more you work, the poorer the results. You realize that you accept more and more responsibilities, but are unable to organize your work in a coherent manner. You no longer know how to say “no” to the extra load and it becomes impossible to establish your priorities.

You then begin to feel more and more guilty for not being able to function as you should. You are ashamed of not being up to the job and you begin to doubt yourself. You see no value in anything you do and are sure that your colleagues despise you. You feel more and more vulnerable.

In a third phase, to defend yourself against this feeling of vulnerability, you may put on a mask of cynicism and bitterness, blaming and criticizing others. You become disagreeable and cause others to avoid your company, which in turn reinforces your lack of self-esteem and you may begin to despair of the world around you.

Finally, the feeling of failure and the powerlessness to change the situation, leads to a crisis and you crack. You overreact, either in anger or in tears. You become suspicious, even paranoid, your state of humor continually changes, going rapidly from euphoria to depression and vice-versa.

Are you close to or in a state of burnout?

The antithesis of burnout is engagement. Engagement is characterized by energy, involvement and efficacy, the opposites of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

Take the following test to see if you are still as engaged in your work as on the first day you arrived on the job.

This test is not a medical diagnosis. It should be considered as an indicator, an opportunity to review your present situation. Only a doctor or therapist is able to conduct a thorough exam in order to qualify your degree of burnout, which will lead to the kind of treatment you need to follow?

What can you do to prevent a burnout?

First, determine your needs. Go to the results of the burnout test and circle your top three signs. For instance, if you feel tired and your sleep pattern is dysfunctional. Or you skip lunch every day. Or you practically never exercise…

Once you determine what you need, come up with an action step for each of these three areas. An action step has a “What” and a “By When.” For instance, I decide not to look at my emails or play video game one hour before going to bed – and I am starting tonight. Setting concrete goals is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll make a change.

To make your plan easier to implement, recruit an anti-burnout partner, a buddy. Tell this person what your action steps are and ask him or her to hold you accountable by checking in to make sure you’ve followed through. Getting support and setting clear action steps will help you implement these simple practices with greater ease.

Actually, the means of preventing burnout are many: learning how to relieve tension and stress, manage frustrations, set limits, learn to say no, control negative thoughts, have a good support network, protect one’s privacy from work related worries…

But the common denominator to all these resources is to improve one’s resilience, one’s ability to resist stress and bounce back from hardships and potentially traumatic situations. Resilience is especially important for humanitarian workers, who often work in emergency contexts. It is a life skill that can always be learned and improved.

If you are already in a burnout…

You might want to get some coaching to get your balance back before you need to quit the job! We suggest you explore the CHP’s support and counseling services. You can also follow a program with someone from our Helpline who is a specialist in humanitarian burnout, which can help you first understand what is going on, accept the situation, find solutions and apply them.

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