A caregiver with their head in their hands with a burning match on the left and a raincloud on the right.

Know the Signs of Burnout in Caregivers

It is completely understandable if my wife, or any MS patient, gets caught up in what is happening to her and forgets about my needs as a caregiver. But MS patients should learn to recognize the signs of burnout in their support partners – it is a matter of concern for both.

I have always been keenly aware of the possibility of burnout, as a close family friend, Geraldine Richelson, co-wrote the original book on the malady, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, with a renowned psychologist, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, Ph.D.

What is burnout?

When Dr. Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s, he was referring to a syndrome that high-achieving individuals experience from being under prolonged stress. He emphasized the effect of severe stress and high ideals of doctors, nurses, and others who worked in professions that emphasize helping others. Dr. Freudenberger wrote that doctors and nurses that he treated often reported being exhausted and unable to function as well as they would like.

He referred to these patients as “burned out.”

The concept and the term itself quickly went mainstream. During the height of the pandemic last year, the media often reported that doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel were burning out from the stress they felt from dealing with death, day in and day out.

Is burnout a medical condition?

For decades, the medical profession did not classify burnout as a medical diagnosis. It was generally regarded as one possible result of depression, which is, of course, a clinical diagnosis.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization, after considering a number of studies, classified burnout as a medical condition. The WHO defines burnout as: “A syndrome…resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”1

Burnout at work, burnout at home

Although the WHO applies burnout only to the workplace, where employees feel powerless amidst increasing stressful work conditions, others commonly apply burnout to homemakers. Here are some of the signs:

  • I feel exhausted – where is my energy?
  • It is becoming almost impossible to focus on everyday tasks
  • I’m starting to resent my responsibilities, my lot in life
  • I can no longer do my job efficiently

I am certain that many support partners can relate to these feelings, even if they are only fleeting and do not indicate full-fledged burnout.

With the increased recognition that homemakers are doing a job and that support partners are also doing a job, it stands to reason that burnout can apply to them and that the condition need not be confined to those who commute to an office and must answer to an employer.

What can those living with MS do to prevent caregiver burnout?

The answer is quite simple: pay attention to support partners and make sure they are taking good care of themselves. If your caregiver is showing any outward signs of burnout, then you need to communicate: tell them that you are concerned about their mental health and you want them to make time for themself. (My wife often encourages me to play more tennis).

If you don’t perceive any obvious signs of burnout, then have a talk with your caregiver and ask them if the job is starting to overwhelm them. If so, then try to remove some of the pressure of the job. For example, tell them that the laundry can wait and that meals can be a bit simpler and easier to prepare. (Or just get some takeout, for Pete’s sake!)

I will have some advice on burnout for support partners in a future post.

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