OH practitioners may be so involved in helping others they neglect themselves and end up burnt out and exhausted. Tips on identifying the causes, spotting the symptoms and dealing with the problem are offered, by Nerina Ramlakhan
Working in occupational health is challenging and can even be frustrating at times. This is particularly true in organisations that are struggling to learn how to function effectively in an increasingly turbulent and unstructured world.
As an organisational consultant and physiologist, I have spent a number of years working at various levels within organisations, often liaising closely with OH departments. I have witnessed a shift in the role of occupational health and an impact on the health of the OH practitioner if the turbulence is not navigated with care and attention to self. The aim of this article is to raise awareness of what can cause burn-out and to highlight those strategies that can help to prevent it.
What is burn-out?
Since Freudenberger's1 pioneering work on burn-out among the caring professions, there has been an explosion of interest in, and research about, this particular syndrome. Burn-out has been described as "to fail, wear out, or become exhausted by reason of excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources". Maslach2 defined it as: "The loss of concern for the people with whom one is working ... (including) physical exhaustion ... (and) characterised by an emotional exhaustion in which the professional no longer has any positive feelings, sympathy or respect for clients or patients".
The symptoms of burn-out are as varied as the sufferers. Some people become irrationally angry. Some resort to blaming any annoyance, large or small, on external factors. Some become quiet, introverted and isolated, which can indicate the start of a serious depression. Others manifest burn-out by under- or over-eating or abusing alcohol or other mood-altering substances. Still others may experience a range of physical symptoms, including chronic illness, high blood pressure and frequent headaches.
In my experience of working with OHPs who have come close to burning out or are actually burnt out, they may become obsessive workaholics - working longer and less productive hours to get the job done. Time management becomes reactive and firefighting the norm at the expense of creative and visionary work.