Why we can we burn out doing an ordinary day’s work.
The saying goes “We live in interesting times”. For many, this is taken to mean more stressful and more pressured times. Every day we read about people working too hard, working long hours, trying to reach unrealistic targets etc with the consequence being that they “burn out”.
Burnout is generally defined as a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged/repeated stress resulting in low job satisfaction and productivity.
It’s a nasty consequence of work for some. It is often taken to mean exposure to large unacceptable amounts of work such as working long hours and/or taking on too many tasks.
This picture is too simple. Stress is not always a bad thing. It can be a source of motivation. It is our response to stress that determines our well-being and our productivity.
Through our work, we can see that the mentally tough and the mentally sensitive respond to stressors and pressure in different ways with implications for prevention and support.
The mentally sensitive can burn out and experience fatigue with fairly ordinary workloads.
Mental Toughness is a personality trait which explains how individuals respond mentally to events. It is often described as “invisible” because it describes a response in the head which cannot easily be seen.
It is a spectrum with mental toughness at one end and mental sensitivity at the other. These are not pejorative. They are not types, they do not imply “good” or “bad”.
Mental toughness consists of 8 comparatively independent factors which combine uniquely in individuals to explain their pattern of responses to stress. The factors are presented below with brief descriptors of a mentally tough response in dealing with stress and pressure. The equivalent mental sensitive responses would be different.
Much of the time, a mentally tough response brings an advantage to the individual. They can often take on tasks and challenges that are beyond most people and appear to comfortably achieve them.
But not always. It depends on their level of self-awareness. If this lacking, it is possible to believe you can do things you can’t realistically do and it is possible to alienate colleagues on whom you might depend on achieving tough goals.
Research from the University of Hull* shows that the mentally tough may not, as a result, recognise the warning signs of burnout.
Confident people can overestimate their ability to deal with heavy workloads. Individuals with high levels of commitment over-ride warning signs of tiredness in pursuit of delivering the goal.
A copy of the image illustrates what can be the consequence of being unaware of what your mental toughness can mean.
So, what about the mentally sensitive?
Research published in 2022 from the University of Toronto** and a group of Russian universities showed that the mentally sensitive tended to approach work and tasks in a different way than the mentally tough.
Where the mentally tough could be proactive, leaping into the task and seeing obstacles and things that are easily managed, the mentally sensitive could be much warier.
In their approach to a task, they would appear to use a good deal of emotional and mental energy. This could be the result of worrying about the task, overthinking what is involved, imagining complications etc.
Consequently, they would often not have the sufficient mental energy to actually complete (or even start) a task. Even a moderate task would now be stretching.
The mentally sensitive can be approaching a state of fatigue or burnout in anticipation of the task. The mentally tough do so as a consequence of engaging too much in the task.
Ultimately this indicates that understanding and assessing the mental toughness of the individual is fundamentally important in understanding their mental response to work/tasks and what this means for burnout and fatigue.
This should inform how work and tasks are presented to individuals and how individuals might usefully be supported and monitored. Especially where the task may place particular demands on the individual.
Usefully, research also suggests that mental toughness can be a factor in recovery from mental illness***.
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* Fatigue and mental toughness: The impact of mental toughness on the development of fatigue. Earle, F. (2015). In D. Strycharczyk & P.J. Clough (Eds.), Developing Mental Toughness: Coaching Strategies to Improve Performance, Resilience and Wellbeing. Kogan Page.
**Parietal Alpha Oscillations: Cognitive Load and Mental Toughness Natalia Zhozhikashvili, Ilya Zakharov, Victoria Ismatullina, Inna Feklicheva, Sergey Malykh and Marie Arsalidou in Brain Sciences, MDPI, 2022
*** The relationship between mental toughness and subjective mental illness; Gemma Ramshaw, Helen St Clair-Thompson: Elsevier, New Ideas in Psychology, 2021
AQR International maintains a directory of more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers which look at the mental toughness concept in different settings and with different applications. If interested contact email@example.com