A young man asleep at a meeting. Head on the table in the foreground.

Regular Burnout vs Neurodivergent Burnout

Burnout is talked about a lot. Some people think it is a never ending state of exhaustion, but there is more to it than that.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Burn-out as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

According to WHO it as an occupational phenomenon and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Now we have refreshed ourselves on the official definition of burnout let’s look at some real life experiences.

I embarked on my corporate life in my early 20’s. I had plenty of energy to throw myself into my work. I worked long hours on a standard week and was on call for the business for a third of my life, 24 hours a day for a week at a time.

I soon became exhausted. That’s not really a surprise is it? After a few years I lost the interest in my work, just like WHO suggests I would. I also wasn’t getting the improvement work done that would break the cycle in the business.

Not knowing about burnout I just felt I’d had enough and I went to work for someone else.

My on call commitment reduced from 30% to 3%. I had the resources at work to make a real difference. I recovered from the previous 5 years of exhaustion.

Gradually the symptoms of burnout started reappearing. The business was growing at a phenomenal rate. Responsibilities and pressure started to take their toll. I found myself needing to take regular time away from work to recover.

Then the inevitable happened, I had the breakdown.

This was, according to WHO, a classic case of chronic workplace stress that had not been successfully managed.

All the support professionals treated me as a workplace stress casualty.

There was more to it than that though. I reduced workplace stress, changed my lifestyle, but still experienced the burnout cycle.

Later, I was diagnosed as autistic. This was a factor in my burnout and it seemed to be getting more demanding as the years passed.

Although WHO does not yet agree that burnout is influenced by life experiences as well as the work environment, more people are accepting that it is a factor.

For example, it is well reported that neurodiverse individuals are more susceptible to burnout. The feeling of not fitting into the world and having to mask in order to seem like we do takes its toll.

This is a factor that cannot be changed in the same way as the environment at work.

In terms of the presentation of symptoms there is little difference between neurotypical and neurodiverse burnout. It is not how the burnout presents itself, but in the factors contributing to its occurrence that the difference occurs.

The good news from this is that all the usual advice on managing burnout still applies whatever the underlying causes are.

For the neurodivergent, however, it means we have to accept that the causes of burnout may not all be work related.

Identifying your unique contributing factors is always the starting point for any recovery from burnout.

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