What is Burnout?
We commonly use this term to describe a response to extended stress, mostly at work. Burnout shows in a variety of dimensions: weariness, increased cynicism regarding the job, and impaired professional abilities. The metaphor is well placed. When the flame is gone, our identity as a professional in a given field is largely lost.
To put it differently, if you start feeling less capable at work, cease identifying yourself with the job, and experience overall weariness, then it is likely that you are burned out.
While our employment situation may be the primary source of the stress that leads to burnout, other factors may also contribute to it. Often, tension results from the lifestyle. Sometimes, it is exacerbated by carrying professional stress into other areas, such as family life.
Inability to live up to a perfectionist ideal at work begins to color various aspects of life in dark hues. Since the experience of burnout is a prolonged process, it is possible that you will not notice any signs right away.
However, once it has taken root, it has the potential to interfere with your capacity to operate in many facets of life.
Technically, burnout is not considered a mental condition, but the occurrence is sufficiently frequent to reflect on remedies.
Work takes most of our active (awake) time. Humans lived like this as nomads, in agricultural societies and from the beginning of industrialization. It is no different in our post-industrial reality.
Much of our social status is derived from professional achievement. If you despise your job, dread coming to work, and don’t derive any joy from what you’re doing, it may have a significant negative impact on your life, your self-image and your social connectivity.
Listed below are some of the most prevalent symptoms of burnout:
1. Isolation from activities that are connected to work
People who are suffering from burnout feel as though their occupations are becoming increasingly demanding and irritating. They might become jaded about the individuals they work with and the surroundings in which they do their jobs. They might also emotionally withdraw and develop a numbness towards their employment.
You may recall cases of past colleagues who, long before quitting their job, became deeply critical about the company’s mission, direction, strategy, management, leadership, policies or all of the above. They were still physically there, but they were not really present.
Sometimes people who suffer from burnout tend to daydream about a different lifestyle, rhythm, job conditions, location, and so on. Most of these reveries are completely unattainable as goals but offer a mental refuge.
This tendency may further exacerbate the person’s state, as the gulf between the actual situation and the dreamed up world is painfully wide. Catastrophizing and fatalism may arise as common cognitive distortions, sometimes precipitating premature decisions deeply affecting future career prospects.
3. Physical symptoms
Long-term stress can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, and digestive problems.
4. Emotional exhaustion
Burnout leaves people feeling emotionally drained, helpless, and exhausted. It deprives them of the energy to get things done.
5. Decreased performance
The effects of burnout are most noticeable in day-to-day activities at work or at home when a person’s primary occupation is caring for family members.
People who suffer from burnout tend to have bad feelings about the jobs they perform. They struggle to concentrate and, as a result, frequently lack creative ability. Although less serious than clinical depression, the symptoms are nonetheless quite similar in occurrence, if not necessarily in their intensity.
How can you overcome burnout?
The first step in overcoming burnout consists in acknowledging that this is what you are experiencing.
Naturally, the next step would call for looking into ways to reduce the pressures that caused it.
Alas, the factors that contribute to burnout are rarely entirely under our control.
There are cultural and systemic problems that contribute to burnout, and it’s possible that we won’t be able to address them “at the root”. However, we are not completely helpless.
Let us start with the simple mental hygiene.
Take a thorough look at your schedule and make sure that you schedule time for self-care in the same way that you would other commitments and be consistent with it.
Self-care can encompass a broad variety of activities, such as going to the doctor regularly or working out often. It might include engaging in enjoyable activities, pursuing hobbies, spending time alone, meditating, journaling, or slowing down to eat a meal rather than eating on the fly.
Once you have identified time to slow down, it is time to deepen your self-awareness, both at the level of Being and at the level of Doing. Awareness brings us back to the present moment –the only moment in which our actions immediately affect our life.
There are several zones of self-awareness:
1. Observe yourself
The most basic zone is accessed at the level of simple observation. It consists in detecting the emotions, and the associated physical sensations triggered by the burnout. It is at this level that we detect the thoughts associated with the situation and capture the ruminative tendencies which are not directly constructive.
2. Slow down
The detection of your own emotions, bodily sensations and the dominant thoughts brought you a step further. Some of these sensations or emotions will not be “pleasant”, but this is not the reason to flee them.
Quite the contrary, try to stay with these emotions, even if the facts cause aversive reactions. If that is the case, breathe. If your natural tendency is to run away from the problem, ground yourself in one spot, feeling the connection between your feet and the ground.
Conversely, if discomfort make you freeze, shake your body, starting with your arms and your legs. Breathe through this exercise and take your time.
3. Embrace the problem
It is only now that you will be able to deepen your self-awareness to an actionable level. This calls for several operations.
a. Name the emotions and feelings you are experiencing. Label them as separate entities from yourself. You are not them. Their name is not yours.
b. Begin to reframe the problem. Try to formulate the situation describing your role in the third person. This will help you de-emotionalize the issue. When you do this, let that “third person” also focus on the aspects of the job or function that were previously enjoyable. Recall the reasons why some of the obligations were assumed in the first
place, always pointing to those aspects of those roles that are appealing.
c. Reconnect with your social context. Engage in an unrelated social activity. Stay with people you find friendly, supportive and compassionate. Such social breaks will refill your emotional batteries and help to take your mind off the dilemmas that caused the burnout.
4. Move to action
Now it’s time to practice new behaviors. Should the reflection lead you to the conclusion that the problem lies in insufficient time or other resources to attend to the tasks at hand, find out if it is possible to tap into other resources. Delegating, automating, re-organizing schedules, batching similar tasks, investing in online assistance – the range of choices is seemingly boundless.
Remember, however, that this work cannot be done without the prior step to increase your self-awareness. You cannot solve the issues at the level of Doing without first delving into the aspects of Being that hold you back from advancing.
Sometimes, this analysis may fall short. If time remains the key constraint, it will be necessary to learn to say “no”.
This can be done in a variety of ways, for example:
●I am grateful that you asked me. I sincerely thank you for thinking of me, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it this time.
●My current schedule does not allow for any open time slots to be filled.
●I’m afraid I won’t be able to be of any assistance to you in this matter; but, you may try asking Sarah.
●I’m sorry that I won’t be able to be there.
Saying “no” is a critical skill and the key ingredient in any negotiation. It is also hugely empowering.
Solving one such problem does not mean that circumstances won’t arise in future leading anew to burnout. In order to avoid such states, it is important to establish regular routines aimed at recharging your emotional and mental state.
Here are a couple of common activities that can help you break the stressful monotony of overwhelm.
1. Try guided meditation.
You can download our free guided meditation here.
2. Journal or write.
To increase your self-awareness at both the cognitive and emotional
level, you may engage in creative writing.
3. Remain in touch with family and friends.
Don’t over-rely on the virtual contact with people you only know virtually. Instead, reconnect to those you knew physically, not least your family. Call, text, FaceTime, or set up a virtual gaming night.
4. Step outdoors.
Your mental health is impacted by spending even just ten minutes outside. Anything you do outdoors helps, whether you hike, drive to the beach, or throw a pebble into a creek.
5. Play uplifting music.
Make sure to listen to music that makes you feel joyful and cheery. In Western music tradition it means listening preferably to music written in major scales. Arguably, such pieces offer less variety of expression, but are known to be associated with happy states. These days it is possible to make a playlist and activate them for those occasions when you need a pick-me-up.
It is less important what you do and more important to engage in your selected activity with regularity. Talk to someone you know you can rely on. Deepening one’s awareness and the subsequent steps described above are often easier said than done.
The effects of burnout may become so overpowering that figuring out how to treat it can be tiring in and of itself. It is challenging to tackle the problem in isolation. Detecting the changes that the situation caused in our emotions and our bodies requires capacity to spell things out, while self-reflection on the dominant thought processes demands advanced metacognitive skills.
It is much easier to bring these things to surface in a dialogue with another human being – a well-minded individual or better yet with a professional. Life coaches frequently help client design better work life balance to avoid burnout. If you need help, contact us to learn more.