Are you experiencing burnout? How can you tell? And what you can do about it?
If you’re showing signs of burnout, what you probably don’t want to hear is this advice: you just need to relax…
But to understand why this particular piece of advice is supremely unhelpful, it’s important to take a look at how you arrive at the point of being ‘burnt out’.
Most of us experience times when we’re feeling overwhelmed physically, emotionally, or both. But that passes as soon as whatever issue is causing it is resolved. We need to be aware when those feelings don’t go away, because that could be a telltale sign of burnout.
Psychology Today explains burnout as ‘a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. When in the throes of full-fledged burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level.’
Best we avoid that then, and take action before we get to that point. The tricky thing about burnout, however, is that it’s not a raging fire, but a slow burn, which makes it harder to identify. You’re not suddenly going to wake up one morning and realise ‘I’m burnt out’. Our bodies and minds do give us advance warning that all is not well, and we need to tune in to these alarm bells.
Clues that your physical and emotional resources are running on empty:
- insomnia and chronic fatigue that become progressively worse,
- impaired memory and distraction,
- feeling rundown and becoming ill regularly, especially with colds and flu,
- anxiety and depression,
- you’re quick to anger, and
- physical symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, uneasy stomach, etc.
If that sounds all-too familiar for comfort, take action before you have a total physical or mental collapse.
It’s also not as simple as saying ‘OK, I’m going to give myself some time out’, and suggesting ‘you just need to relax’ can be counter-productive.
People who are chronically fatigued are often driven by adrenalin and need to occupy themselves as they can’t bear to not be busy. Hello holiday, and hello Candy Crush addiction.
It’s not helped by the fact that we live in a culture that looks down on people who ‘do nothing’. We may be (unconsciously) always checking our productivity and feel guilty when we take a bit of downtime, so time spent doing nothing means we fall short of what we think is required, which makes us even more stressed.
Reducing working hours (if that doesn’t cause more stress!), and taking up a relaxing form of exercise such as yoga may be beneficial, but in extreme cases some sort of therapy may be required.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the recommended psychotherapy practice for burn out, although other modalities may be useful to teach us the art of spending time with no specific agenda. ‘Allow’ ourself to spend time merely thinking/reading/resting is advisable when we are slaves to an endless list of to-do tasks.
Become mindful So many studies have proven that meditation and mindfulness are extremely effective in reducing emotional stress. As reported in New Scientist, a recent review by the Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab at Coventry University in the UK, analysed 18 studies looking at the impact of practices from Qigong to tai chi, coming to a conclusion that genes related to inflammation became less active in people practicing mind-body interventions. The results suggest they might help reduce the risk for not only psychological inflammation-related disorders, but even the physical ones like asthma and arthritis.
Perhaps you just need a change…
If your job is one of the causes of your burnout, changing your job won’t help. You’ll simply take your burnout along with you to the next situation. Apart from that, many people actually enjoy their jobs (even if they are particularly stressful) so don’t really want to make a change.
The idea of ‘job crafting’ may be just what you need. This strategy involves re-shaping your job to make it a better ‘fit’ for you. So perhaps you need to (in consultation with the powers that be) increase the tasks you perform that resonate with your passion and values, while reducing those tasks which put you in conflict with your values. How do you relate to your colleagues? What do you think about your job as a whole? Just a little tweaking may make all the difference.
Are you sure you’re not just depressed?
Although burnout and depression can be related, common thought among researchers is that possibly 20% of people who suffer from burnout have depression as a cause. In other words, 80% of people with burnout need to consider what other factors might be contributing to their condition.
The bad news is that burnout may be thought of as a ‘gateway’ condition. In other words, it can open the door to both physical and emotional illness. So while depression might not be the cause, it may be a consequence.
You just need to get stronger…
When you’re exhausted, it’s easy to start judging yourself too harshly and comparing yourself negatively to others. You’re not weak. There are ways to manage stress better. For instance, stress levels drop when we feel we’re making a difference. UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor has discovered that when we’re stressed, our brains release chemicals that make us actually seek out bonding with other people. The desire to befriend and take care of others increases our feeling of self-worth. Of course, if you start caring for everyone, you’re going to add to your stress, so a little goes a long way!
It’s just a job…
Well actually – it is. While you may feel that the contribution you make to society in your job is huge, it is still just your job. The person who serves you your coffee or cleans your home may not seem to be making a difference to the greater good, but the truth is that they are making a huge contribution to YOUR life, which makes their contribution just as important. So keep perspective – the world will keep spinning without you.
Ultimately, avoiding burnout is first prize, and it is possible. It’s important to listen to your body, which may be screaming at you to stop.
Accept your limits and stop when you feel your body (or your mind) telling you to.
Ask for help if you need it.
Put yourself first sometimes, and avoid spending your energy on activities and people that drain you.
Eat well, get some exercise and try to get some sun (Vitamin D) every day.
Share your thoughts with someone close to you to help you get perspective, and don’t push yourself just for the sake of getting there.
Never ignore your intuition. If it feels wrong, it probably is.