Well-Being Mental Health

What is depersonalization and how does it relate to burnout?

It’s characterized by a sense of disconnection and distorted perception of self.
illustration of woman slouching in armchair, above her an energy bar down to red zone

Story at a glance

  • Energy depletion is one symptom of burnout from work stress.

  • It can also involve detachment and lack of motivation.

  • Depersonalization is when a distorted perception of self can lead to lack of empathy.

If you are feeling burned out from work and feel like you are struggling through each day, you may be experiencing “depersonalization.” Here we explore what that means in relation to burnout and get tips from a licensed psychotherapist. 

Burnout syndrome (BOS) is a combination of symptoms related to work stress that hasn’t been “successfully managed,” according to the World Health Organization. This includes, “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.” The American Thoracic Society says that BOS can be “triggered by a discrepancy between the expectations and ideals of the employee and the actual requirements of their position.” 

It’s no wonder that ideas like “quiet quitting” and “quiet firing” are getting widespread attention. Many people are experiencing mental health issues, especially during the pandemic, and more than half are not able to get the treatment they need, according to a recent report

Some researchers think about BOS in terms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal achievement. Depersonalization is an “impaired and distorted perception of oneself, of others and one’s environment and it manifests itself as an affective-symptomatic lack of empathy,” according to a paper published in the GMS Journal for Medical Education.

Depersonalization can also be a situation where a person feels life is less real or they feel numb. That person may feel detached from others or themselves and their identity. They may feel demotivated and isolated. 

People are coming out of the pandemic having a little more energy, attention and space to think about questions like, “How do I feel about my career” or “How am I engaging with work,” says psychotherapist Emily Donahue. Companies have begun the return to office campaigns and, on the one hand, people might feel like they would miss the freedom of working from home but also may long for the sense of community and connection to others from being in an office. 

You might be feeling depersonalization if you look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself, says Donahue. And that can be normal, although for most people you can snap out of that after a few seconds. It can become clinical if that happens for an extended period of time. 

Working from home and sitting doing the same tasks every day can make anyone feel like they are a robot. But there’s also an emotional aspect to this. “Emotions are energy,” says Donahue. “They want to move. We need noise, we need to shake it out. And when you just have a blank screen and it’s quiet, and you have all this turmoil inside, the body doesn’t know what to do.” 

To get out of periods of burnout, Donahue recommends trying to practice the “opposite action.” So if your schedule is packed and you are going from one thing to the next, it might help to slow down and cut activities out of your calendar. “Let’s not put everything on a task list,” Donahue adds. 

On the other side of things, if you find yourself in a depressive phase where the only thing you want to do is binge TV shows, think of adding activities back into your life and reaching out to friends. 

Ultimately, your body is trying to give you information and self-reflection could help to figure out what it means. If you find yourself wondering if you should talk to a therapist, maybe you have gotten to the point where you could use the help of a mental health professional. Some other signs to look out for might be if the people around you have noticed changes. 

Donahue, who went through a period of burnout that led to a career change into mental health care, says she keeps herself from becoming burned out by setting up systems involving all the activities that help her and by limiting the number of clients she takes on. “There’s no perfect either. It’s a little pendulum,” Donahue tells Changing America.

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