Burnout mainly strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard working and successful people, and it therefore holds a special fear for those who care passionately about their studies, careers and about the work they do.
Exhaustion and long-term stress contribute to burnout, but they are not the most destructive parts of it. The real damage of burnout comes from the sense of deep disillusionment that lies at its heart.
Many of us get our sense of identity and meaning from our work. We may have started our careers with high ideals or high ambitions and may have followed these with passion. This is easy to see in doctors and teachers, who may have a strong desire to help other people to be the best that they can be. Good lawyers may have a passion for justice. Others may be ambitious for promotion or may want to make a difference to people or organizations in some other way. In all of these cases, these ideals can drive a highly motivated, passionate approach to work.
It is not surprising that people showing this level of resilience and commitment to their work are often spectacularly successful. The problem comes when things become too much. Perhaps exhaustion sets in because people have been working too hard for too long. Perhaps performance begins to slip because of this. Perhaps the problem being solved is too great, and the resources available are too meager. Perhaps supportive mentors move on and are replaced by people who do not appreciate the heroic job that is being done, or do not subscribe to the ideals that drive performance. Perhaps co-workers or team members make just too many emotional demands, or people being served prove to be ungrateful and difficult.
Being proactive, energetic, committed people, it is likely that we respond to obstacles like these by increasing our commitment and hard work. However, in these circumstances it is possible that these efforts may have little or no impact on the situation. This can be where burnout begins to set in. As we get less satisfaction from our jobs, the downsides of these jobs become more troublesome. As we get more tired, we have less energy to give. If our organizations fail to support us, we can get increasingly disenchanted with them. We become increasingly disillusioned.
In extreme cases, we can lose faith completely in what we are doing, and what our organizations are doing, becoming cynical and embittered, and feeling that our ideals and meanings in life count for nothing. This is full-scale burnout.
More about Burn Out and how to prevent it