The tipping point: handling burnout - Museums Association

The tipping point: handling burnout

In the Wellbeing Hub we cover understanding your emotions, exploring the ‘stressors’ in your working life and how to develop resilience – but what if the stressors become too much and they last too long?

When this is the case, our ability to withstand stressors becomes compromised and at that tipping point we may experience burnout.

What do we mean by the term burnout?

The term burnout was first coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. The term was used to describe the experiences of those who were subject to severe stress associated with their work. These individuals often worked in helping environments, for example as medical or social care professionals.

Why is understanding burnout important now?

Over a number of years the museum sector has increasingly been asked to do more with less, resulting in increased demands being placed upon colleagues with fewer resources. This combined with organisational change and restructuring creates role ambiguity and general uncertainty, both of which contribute to our experience of work stressors.

The sector has developed positively in its purpose and impact, for example by working with more vulnerable communities, working in semi-therapeutic spaces through social prescribing, and addressing anti-racism, climate crisis, social justice and decolonisation. All of these activities place an additional emotional burden on those carrying out the work, which can contribute to experiences of work-related stress.

In addition to all of this, our life outside work has also changed – from austerity measures to caring responsibilities, and most recently the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to experiences of isolation, loss and financial precarity.

When we experience stress for an extended period of time it can cause burnout, and this is why it is so important to understand the concept, to recognise the symptoms, to know how get or give support and to ensure the culture you create doesn’t accelerate or perpetuate burnout in others.

What does burnout feel like?

Burnout is often a gradual process. While stress results from too many demands, the promise of successful achievement can be realised through increasing energy and input to get over the hump. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations can have a longer-term impact, and in some circumstances, it can result in burnout.

There are a range of burnout symptoms, and they can be physical, emotional, or behavioural – for example, feeling:

  • Tired, drained or exhausted most of the time
  • Helpless, hopeless, trapped or defeated
  • Detached and alone in the world
  • Overwhelmed and ‘drowning’
  • Cynical or negative

These symptoms may occur before you reach burnout, which is why it is important (where possible) to track how you are feeling and for how long, and how deep-seated any symptoms are.

Where do you go for help?

Many people have experienced periods of stress over the course of their career and can recognise the signs and symptoms.

Burnout is experienced less frequently and its onset can be slow and gradual, and as such you may not be able to easily identify it. So what can you do to recognise and address it?

  • Be present and pay attention to how your body is feeling and how you are thinking – are you experiencing stress?
  • Track or log how you are feeling, for how long and how deep-seated any symptoms are
  • Ask colleagues to be your look-out if you know that you may be more vulnerable to stress than others
  • Don’t bottle up your feelings – seek help and support from those around you, and remember that your supervisor, manager or leader has a responsibility for your physical and psychological wellbeing related to work
  • Use guidance, hints and tips to help you – a number of links can be found below

Burnout culture

Whilst burnout is experienced at an individual level, it can be affected by our general work environment. If you lead, manage or supervise a team, you have a responsibility to support the wellbeing of your team and to develop a positive working culture, for example by:

  • Creating achievable and realistic workloads (demands)
  • Providing clarity around activities and contribution (roles)
  • Demonstrating a genuine interest and rapport with your team and co-workers (relationships)
  • Being communicative and supportive in the management of change (change)
  • Sharing power and valuing autonomy (control)
  • Offering praise, recognition and resources to enable delivery (support)

Demands, roles, relationships, change, control and support are all stressors identified by the Health and Safety Executive which affect the experience of work, whether positively or negatively. If as a leader, manager or supervisor you are putting in place the steps above, the likelihood of your team experiencing stress and that stress resulting in burnout will be reduced.

As part of a culture of positive wellbeing, vigilance about the individual wellbeing of your team members is essential. Looking for signs and symptoms of stress and burnout can be critical in supporting your team. If you see a change in someone or any of the signs and symptoms highlighted above, be responsive:

  • Have a conversation
  • Explore what’s going on
  • Develop a way forward with them

It is important to acknowledge that all areas of life, including work, can contribute to our feelings of stress and burnout, and as such an exploration of life both at work and at home may provide better insight.


Wellbeing Hub

Further resources

Signposting to a range of resources for additional wellbeing help and guidance

Building resilience

Practical guidance on developing resilience through our behaviours, thoughts and actions


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