I get by with a little help from my (work) friends


If you love your job you can’t get burnout out right?  Feeling engaged in your work, will protect you from feelings of burnout, right? Not quite.

Work engagement is the positive feeling associated with work and occurs when you feel you are being challenged yet you have the capabilities to meet that challenge. You may feel on top of things, completely competent and in control of a situation. You may even take a lot of meaning from your work. However, you can still become burnt out. Burnout is work-related stress the kind of feeling of having given your all, and not having any more to give.  Burnout can present as extreme fatigue, an exhaustion that can be either physical or emotional or even both. People who are burnt out may also become cynical, losing interest in what they do and becoming detached from their work. Finally burnout can also present as feelings of incompetence, that you are not able to do enough, feelings of reduced efficacy in your performance.

Despite consistently feeling engaged in their work, it was found that applied sport psychologists were not able to escape the trap of burnout– burnout appears to be a condition  that all if not most applied sport psychologists will experience at least once in their professional careers, and if they are not careful can coincide with annual stressful events – think qualifying for major championships, or the finals of major championships and from a research perspective, during finals time or through grant application.

Firstly it is important to recognise that burnout can be experienced at different intensities. Burnout can be short lived or sporadic, on the other hand burnout can build slowly over time and be overwhelming. So how do those in the “know” fight the effects of burnout or prevent them from happening in the first place?

McCormack and colleagues recently found that social support can be one of the most effective resources in a professional’s arsenal in keeping burnout away. It can also be one of the most effective tools in recovering from the negative experience of burnout.

Burnout is often experienced when there is a feeling of not getting recognition for your work or if there is a lack of feedback. These conditions are also counterintuitive to experiencing work engagement as it will detract from the meaning an individual will be able to get from their work.

The great thing about social support is that even the feeling of having support can be enough to help someone through a stressful time. However, in all reality if you believe you have the support from others, in really stressful times you will more than likely use that support. Support can also come in many different forms, from formal to informal and from counsellors giving professional advice to friends and family who often act as a sounding board.

So does where you get your support from matter? One of the interesting findings from the study McCormack et al. conducted, which interviewed 30 international applied sport psychologists (Male = 18, Female = 13) was that there is a relationship between the type of support utilized and the level of burnout experienced. The sport psychologists were from the UK, the USA, Australia/New Zealand and Ireland, and all recognized that social support was beneficial if not integral to their own well-being. What was found was that those who had experienced lower levels of burnout were more able to refer to social support that was work related. Turning to supervisors and/ mentors, or to one’s peers in times of stress appear to be the most effective way to stave off high levels of burnout. Friends and family were, across the field, the most common source of social support. However, interestingly the sport psychologists who had experienced lower levels of burnout quoted using their family and friends for support less often than those who had experienced high levels of burnout. This means that while it is important to have friends and family understand your work based stresses, indeed having an understanding partner to pick up the slack at home when you are snowed under in work can be instrumental to getting through a stressful period, it might be more important to have people in your work place or who understand your work demands and expectations. Having someone who has the expertise in your area to be able to look at the situation from a different perspective, share advice with and brainstorm ideas could be more beneficial to your well-being.

So what is the secret to avoiding burnout? Create a strong support network around yourself. Make sure there are people who you work with or who understand the nature and demands of your work that you can turn to in times of stress. Family and friends are great resources for helping you detach from work, but during those inevitable busy and stressful periods it will be those you work with, whether formally or informally, that will have the biggest impact on your well-being.

The full version of this paper by Hannah McCormack  and colleagues is open access and can be read here.

Practicing What We Preach: Investigating the Role of Social Support in Sport Psychologists’ Well-Being