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On the anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we are publishing a series of articles about people working or volunteering in hotspots. Such work is often associated with burnout, which we talked about with Sasha, a practising Gestalt therapist and psychologist. Read about staff burnout syndrome and how to fight it in the new article “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow”.

Alexandra, psychologist

“Burn-out denotes emotional emptiness…”

Now the concept of burn-out has gone global and is used in many different contexts, such as relationships or sports. However, this term is specific to the sphere of work. Emotional burnout, according to ICD-11, is a syndrome resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that has not been successfully overcome.

In simpler terms, it is a mental reaction to chronic stress.

Despite the term being quite old (first described in 1974, with the phenomenon predating it), it seems to me that we have only recently begun talking about it, although it is a very important issue. When Herbert Freudenberger introduced this term, initially it was referred to as “staff burn-out syndrome.” Part of this term is borrowed from narcology, where “burn-out” denotes the emotional emptiness of an addicted person who sees no positive outcome in their situation. People experiencing burnout feel similarly.

Signs of burnout and how this syndrome develops

To determine if you are experiencing burnout, pay attention to both physical and socio-psychological reactions. Physically, you may experience acquired insomnia, weakened immunity, loss of appetite, headaches, increased intake of stimulants such as coffee and cigarettes. There’s a general physical fatigue and irritability present in life.

Alexandra, Photo from the asbestos archive

Among socio-psychological reactions, you may notice a loss of concentration, boredom, melancholy at work, nervousness, although previously your eyes were lit up with enthusiasm for your tasks. Work is accompanied by cynicism, indifference, and a loss of the meaningful aspect of the work.

All this is important to notice and react in time. As mentioned earlier, burnout is preceded by stress in the workplace. Conventionally, it can be divided into internal and external stressors. External ones include everything related to the work environment: excessive workload, a heavy work schedule, bullying, conflicts in the team, lack of recognition, and reward for activity. For us, it is important to maintain the balance of “giving” and “receiving” and enjoy the process. By fulfilling our duties, i.e., investing our energy, we expect to receive something equivalent in return—whether it be salary or recognition from management, acknowledgment in the team, or support from leadership. It’s important to ensure compliance with these rules to avoid disrupting the balance and preserving resources.

The balance is disrupted when you “give” but receive nothing in return.

Then the resource is spent faster and it becomes easier to come to resource exhaustion and burnout. Speaking of internal factors, this includes hyper-involvement, overvaluing work to the point where it occupies all space in life, leaving no room for personal life, social connections, and hobbies. Again, it’s about balance: when you invest all of yourself into work, at the expense of personal life, it’s no wonder personal life starts to fade, and social contacts are lost.

When we talk about burnout, depression often comes into view. But they should be distinguished—burnout is a syndrome, depression is an illness. The difference is that illness is a set of symptoms with a common pathogenesis. A syndrome, on the other hand, is a group of symptoms that can be caused by different reasons, meaning they do not have a common pathogenesis. If we talk about how to distinguish one from the other, and they really are similar and can stem from each other—burnout is limited to the work sphere only, where all unwanted feelings arise in the work context. If your feelings in other spheres of life remain unchanged, and all the symptoms described above are only related to the work sphere, then you are likely dealing with burnout. If changing jobs and environment does not improve your condition, and feelings of suppression, apathy, and detachment become your permanent state, you should be wary if these are signs of a depressive episode.

It is important to say that burnout is a process, and like any process, it has stages. Burnout is no exception. It is important to notice these stages, as it provides an opportunity to stop in time and take action. The first stage is the stage of enthusiasm, so to speak, the “honeymoon” phase, when we are highly motivated. It’s something new for us, we are passionate about our work, and we don’t see any difficulties. The next stage is persistence, when difficulties arise, and a person makes efforts to solve them. The person maintains a high level of activity, and although there is already some fatigue, it is ignored. If these stages occur sequentially and nothing is done, we come to the stage of withdrawal, where a person no longer tries to be as productive and unconsciously focuses more on self-preservation. Periods of past productivity are replaced by setbacks and inefficiency. The next stage is exhaustion. We are already on a slippery slope, working on autopilot, irritability begins to appear, and stress tolerance decreases. And we come to the stage of fading, where we lose interest in our activities, and complete moral, physical, motivational exhaustion appears.

Alexandra, Photo from the asbestos archive

Interestingly, as we have already mentioned, when this term was introduced into common usage, it was referred to as “staff burn-out syndrome” – it was specifically about professions where there is the concept of “staff” – personnel or a team, that is, a collective whose work involves communication and close interaction with people. And now, the number one professions where burnout occurs are social workers, activists, and volunteers. They have increased emotional involvement in their work, not just in work processes, but in people. Without in any way devaluing the work of an accountant, I dare to assume that when reports don’t match in accounting, the employee doesn’t feel it as keenly as a volunteer who witnesses someone losing their home, family, or life. You are constantly working at maximum capacity, in stressful situations, and there is a need to contain others’ psychological manifestations: feelings, tears, hysteria.

“It is important to see the result of your work, but with global goals, the result can escape…”

I’ll add a couple of words about activism. Here, too, it’s difficult to separate personal and professional boundaries. There is a great probability of bringing work into personal, personal into work and mixing everything into one lump, over which there is a constant rumination – thought gum. The danger for us lies in the lack of switching off and the ability to distract ourselves from other processes, and, accordingly, not to specifically rest from this.

People working in the social sphere, including volunteers and activists, set themselves very global goals: to change the world, to save everyone. But it’s important to see the result of your work, and with global goals, the result can elude you. It is necessary to receive feedback, a real assessment of your actions and results. For this, it is useful, for example, if you are remotely working with homeless issues, to come to a homeless shelter and see positive changes with your own eyes, where people are warm and fed. If you work in hotspots – keep in touch with those you deal with. If you helped with an evacuation, contact those people, find out if they are okay. If you brought humanitarian aid, ask how it was distributed or used. It is important to see your result to avoid burning out. It is necessary to remember that the path to a global goal lies through small steps-tasks and to record the success of the set mini-tasks. It’s like combating procrastination: breaking down a big task into small parts and attributing achievements to yourself for solving them. And don’t be afraid of attributing achievements; attributing achievements is fuel for further movement.

There is also a term “rescuer syndrome”, where people, including activists and social workers, have a tendency to save everyone at the expense of themselves.

But it is important to remember that just as in a plane crash the first thing to do is to put the mask on yourself, then the children, and then help others, so here too, without learning how to save yourself, it will be difficult to save others. A good solution would be to work on this in therapy, because in most cases, a person involved in activities in these areas often falls into this trap. We are dependent on the need for approval, societal acceptance, and the work of a social worker is often underestimated.

It is important to find a place where you can experience your emotions so that they don’t later collapse on you like an avalanche.

Working in hotspots can lead to burnout, burnout to depression and PTSD. It is important to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. For people working in hotspots, it is important to observe psychological hygiene. It’s great if there is an opportunity to work with specialists: psychologists, therapists, attend support groups or psychological support groups. And it is important to find a place where you can experience emotions, not to collect them in an unlived bag. In hotspots, we often do not engage with our emotions and only think about survival. But emotions don’t disappear anywhere, and it’s important, if you can’t experience an emotion at the moment, to find a place where you can experience it later. Until these emotions become catastrophically overwhelming, and they don’t collapse like an avalanche. If you don’t take care of yourself in time, you won’t have the strength to help others.

Alexandra, Photo from the asbestos archive

Resource replenishment and dopamine

If you have noticed the symptoms listed above, or if they have manifested in your loved ones, it is important, if possible, to give yourself quality rest. That is, not just lying on the couch for three days and watching TV series. Although it works, it’s quick dopamine. The series will end, and along with it, dopamine production will cease. You need to find something that will work in the long run. It’s great to find a hobby, establish social contacts. Find time and a place to live through accumulated experience because volunteers, social workers often don’t have time to process accumulated experience.

It is important to change the place to start new experiences, because burnout often follows the formula home-work-home, and if you are on a hot spot, you are there all the time. These are recommendations in case of an emergency if we are already on the path to burnout. To prevent it, you should develop mindfulness, practise psychological hygiene, understand your needs, understand your limitations and when it’s time to replenish your resources. Develop your sensitivity (not your thick-skinnedness), because it is your sensitivity that will tell you when to take a rest, when to replenish your resources. To check with reality, to ask yourself whether I came to this point by myself or whether I was brought here.

If you notice all this, you can do something about it. And it is necessary to understand that we cannot help everyone, and our resources are limited, and this is normal, and this is our humanity. It’s hard to accept, but once accepted, it will be easier to help those who will have a real opportunity to help. As self-healing techniques, I can recommend setting boundaries between work, activities, and your life. Try to limit yourself from work, introduce more entertainment. And it will have a positive effect if hobbies are opposite to work. It’s important to find something to switch to from work. Be more attentive to yourself, listen to your feelings more.

Taking sick leave due to burnout is now possible in some countries. In Poland, such an opportunity definitely exists, in Belarus – most likely not. To do this, you need to make an appointment with a psychiatrist, don’t be afraid, this is a regular doctor, and after the consultation, take sick leave with the right to extend it. This is an excellent way not to disappear from work, not to resign, replenish resources, and continue your activities.

This article was created as part of the Free Belarus Center scholarship program