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What is Burning in Burnout?
Milica Vukelić psychologist, assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, Belgrade
What is Burning in Burnout?
Burnout is not a new phenomenon although it may seem so at first glance. This phenomenon, which transitioned from the field of popular psychology to the scene of occupational psychology, was discussed in America as early as in the 1970s. However, this is not the precise timing, given that work in the centuries behind us had been quite cruel, perhaps even more than today. State of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion characterised by cynicism, inability to empathize and a decrease in productivity (which is at the same time the definition of burnout) definitely isn’t a novelty in the history of labour.

Nevertheless, the reason that this phenomenon was ‘discovered’ precisely in the mid-seventies in America is closely linked to the increase in the number of employees in the so-called ‘service sector’. The service sector is tied to jobs where the main product is intangible, i.e. service. This sector includes hospitality, sales, banking, insurance, healthcare, education, social work, media, etc. These are also the sectors where employees are most at risk of developing burnout. Why is it so? The key is actually that the characteristics of work in these work environments imply intense emotional demands (e.g. working with difficult clients), prolonged stress, inability to control job demands and workload, difficulty for the employee to ’switch off’ and disconnect from job, constant competition, low appreciation of work (not only financially, but also in terms of recognizing the value of the work performed by an individual in an organization), frequent work conflicts. These are the precise job characteristics that make employees feel exhausted, worn out, empty.

There are two images, two faces of burnout. The image of impolite, disinterested, cynical and overworked employee, working at an info desk or a counter. Then there is a completely different one, which is not so well-known in the general public. Namely, burnout was first observed (and called burnout) among volunteers in the health and social protection sector! That is, among enthusiastic people who had not worked for money, but rather because they authentically wanted to help, to be there for other people in trouble without asking for any material compensation in return. These two different images actually reveal the interventions and preventive actions which primarily the employer and then the employees may use and practice to protect themselves from burnout. They certainly include the issue of introduction to work, familiarity with the actual job description, support provided to the employee, involvement in the decision-making process, length of working time, psychological climate of the organization. On the other hand, some jobs can never be a peaceful harbour; therefore, it is important that employees learn how to handle stress inherent to such jobs. Employees should use every opportunity to ask colleagues and superiors for support, invest in those aspects of work that are really a pleasure to them, learn to ’switch off’ from work (mostly from emails and phone) after working hours, spend quality time with friends, family, pursue a fulfilling hobby or sports and take every opportunity to rest well. What ’burns’ in burnout is both an individual and an organization; therefore, there is no effective prevention and intervention without dealing with individuals as well as organizations.
Milica Vukelić
psychologist, assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, Belgrade