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Counselling Can Help Relieve Burnout.

Updated: May 23

Burnout is defined as a type of stress that results from chronic work-related stressors such as heavy workload, lack of control over one’s work, and a lack of support from colleagues or supervisors. It is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Burnout can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, feelings of cynicism or detachment from work, and a reduced sense of personal effectiveness. Burnout can have a significant impact on our overall well-being and quality of life, and negative impacts can extend far beyond the workplace.


Current advice on combatting burnout focuses on addressing the underlying causes and implementing strategies to reduce and manage stress. Of course, because burnout is defined as a work-related condition, the workplace itself is named as the underlying cause, and those of us experiencing burnout are encouraged to:


Burnout

1. Take a break: Take time off work to prioritize self-care activities like exercise, relaxation, and socializing.

2. Re-prioritize: Assess your workload and responsibilities and identify tasks that can be delegated or postponed. Set realistic goals and deadlines to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

3. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote stress relief such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises. Eat well, get more sleep, and exercise regularly.

4. Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Avoid checking work emails or taking work-related calls during off hours.


This is lovely advice for the most privileged members of our society, but most of us do not have, or perceive that we have, the power to take the time off that we need, set our own deadlines, or meditate or rest whenever we want. Further, most employees recognize that the majority of our peers seem fine; if everyone was walking around the workplace like zombies it might make sense to hold the employer accountable, but if the workplace is bustling with energy and one individual is experiencing burnout, perhaps there is something inside of that person that is contributing to the burnout.

Complex trauma

One very common risk factor for burnout

is complex trauma. Complex trauma refers to exposure to multiple traumatic events over an extended period of time, typically in childhood or adolescence. These events can include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or other forms of violence or trauma. Complex trauma can lead to a range of long-term effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance use. Complex trauma keeps our bodies continually scanning for danger and our fight/flight/freeze response perpetually activated. It predisposes us to a life of Chronic Stress.


Chronic Stress refers to a “state of prolonged and ongoing stress that can last for weeks, months, or even years”. Chronic Stress can be caused by a variety of factors, including work-related stress, financial stress, relationship problems, and health issues. When the body is exposed to chronic stress, the stress response system remains activated, leading to a range of physical and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of developing health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.


I have discussed in previous posts how the symptoms of complex trauma, which mirror those of chronic stress, are often diagnosed as disorders such as ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Complex trauma’s impact on an individual’s ability to form strong relationships presents further challenges, as they lack the ability to build supportive networks around them to combat the effects of ongoing chronic stress and wind up feeling isolated both inside and outside the workplace, and a lack of connection is a leading risk factor of burnout.

Burnout

Chronic stress is both a by-product of complex trauma, and an underlying cause of burnout. As a result, complex trauma and burnout are related as they both involve chronic stress and emotional exhaustion. Individuals who have experienced complex trauma may be more susceptible to burnout due to their heightened sensitivity to stress and their difficulty in managing emotions. Similarly, burnout can exacerbate symptoms of complex trauma such as anxiety and depression, making it more difficult for them to cope with their past experiences. For these people, overcoming burnout requires more than simply addressing their current work environment; in order to promote healing and prevent further distress, they also need to address their past experiences.


If you are feeling burned out at work, or in life in general, and if you believe that you experienced neglect, violence, or other adverse childhood experiences, speaking to a professional mental health counsellor or psychotherapist may help turn things around. Trauma-focused therapy can help individuals process and make sense of their traumatic experiences. It provides a safe and supportive environment to process and explore past traumas, develop new coping strategies, and learn skills to regulate emotions and manage symptoms. Therapy can also help individuals to build resilience and self-compassion, improve relationships, and develop a sense of meaning in life. Trained therapists can help individuals work towards healing from complex trauma and improving their quality of life.


As we heal from complex trauma, our nervous systems regulate, reducing the amount of stress we carry unnecessarily. We eliminate chronic stress from our lives by learning to manage stressors more effectively. Our new coping strategies include relaxation techniques, mindfulness practices, and cognitive-behavioural techniques to reframe negative thoughts and beliefs. With a greater sense of self-awareness, we develop the ability to work towards solutions and take control of our own stress levels.


Healing from complex trauma and chronic stress allows us to approach the workplace with a brand-new mindset; with regulated nervous systems we are more open and relaxed, and we have a clear idea of our personal identity, values, goals, and priorities, and are able to find ways to align our work and life with these values. We can approach work with a greater sense of purpose and meaning, which of course reduces feelings of burnout.

Meaningful relationship

Perhaps the most damning negative impact of complex trauma is the impairment of our ability to form meaningful relationships; childhood adversity teaches us to detach from our needs, to shame ourselves, and instills in us a reluctance to express our needs or advocate effectively for them. The idea of setting boundaries is terrifying, and we are compelled to be people-pleasers, rendering us incapable of ignoring emails or answering calls after hours. We learned very early in life to never trust our environment or the people in it and, as a result, are not able to fully engage in meaningful relationship with others. We lack the positive relationships that play a significant role in managing burnout by providing the emotional support, validation, and sense of belonging that helps others cope with stress and maintain a sense of purpose and meaning in their work.


By healing from complex trauma, we reduce ongoing chronic stress and learn to build positive relationships with colleagues and supervisors, which can foster a sense of teamwork and collaboration, which in turn can reduce feelings of isolation and overwhelm. This creates a more supportive and positive work environment, which can help prevent burnout.


In addition, building positive relationships outside of work can provide a much-needed break from work-related stress and responsibilities. Spending time with friends and family, engaging in hobbies and leisure activities, and participating in social events are all things that are challenging for those of us who have not addressed our childhood trauma, but can help us recharge and feel more fulfilled in our personal lives, which further acts to prevent burnout.


What I would say to anyone who is experiencing burnout but feels like they do not have the power to take time for themselves to follow the advice of ‘burnout experts’, who feels a sense of isolation or loneliness both within and outside of the workplace, and who struggles with self-compassion, is this:

Burnout, chronic stress

1. Look around at your colleagues; is everyone else feeling the same way, or is it just you?


2. Self-reflect; is this a pattern that repeats itself in your life? Have you burned out before in your employment or in your relationships?


3. Think back; did you experience significant, ongoing adversity during your childhood that may have impacted the way you approach relationships and react to stress?


For millions of us, our burnout is just another long-term repercussion of complex, childhood trauma. If we do not find healing from that, making workplace improvements can seem daunting, if not impossible, and at best will bring temporary relief. As the old saying goes; ‘no matter where you go, there you are’. As children we were faced with unbearable circumstances that forced us to dissociate from ourselves and our needs. We developed chronic stress which we bring with us into our relationships and our workplaces, and this stress builds and builds until it becomes unbearable. We label it burnout and blame our employers, or our partners, and to get relief we dissociate from them. Wash, rinse, repeat.


Psychotherapy for burnout, chronic stress, and complex trauma.

Childhood adversity has a life-long impact, and burnout may be a sign that it may be time to seek support. Reaching out to a mental health professional who specialized in complex trauma can have an enormous impact on all areas of your life.

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