Burnout is a physical and mental response to ongoing exposure to workplace stress, exhaustion and pressure. Burnout destroys enjoyment and satisfaction and leads to cynicism, reduced productivity and can lead to depression if left unmanaged. Understanding burnout is the first step towards successful management.
The term burnout is used to describe stress and exhaustion that has its origins in the work place. Officially it is meant to be independent from other life stressors. But in reality separating ‘life’ from ‘work’ is nearly impossible. For many of us our jobs are our life or at the very least a huge part of it. Burnout is not a diagnosable medical condition but it can be understood as a weakening and deterioration of the resilient emotional self due to chronic stress originating in the workplace. There are many areas of the workplace that can contribute to burnout.
it’s not about working too much
Understanding burnout comes with understanding the driving force behind it. Its not just about working too much. Maybe we hate our boss, are experiencing workplace bullying or we are being micro managed. You have a strong moral or ethical conflict with the type of work you or the company you work for.
Often other life stressors such as a challenging relationship or a difficult life event can make a usually manageable working life particularly difficult. Maybe you have recently made the shift to working from home and this has been met with unanticipated stress. The reasons are varied and each person will have a unique set of contributing factors that lead to their own burning out.
The workplace is a complex and often savage social environment. Power structures can be overwhelmingly disproportionate and the phenomenon of workplace bullying is disturbingly common. 40% of all Australians have experienced bullying at work. Systemic racism, sexism, ageism are rife and often unchecked in the workplace. These experiences can easily lead to a burn out, or other mental health challenges.
The process of burnout can be swift but its more often long and drawn out. I like to look at burnout in stages, this can help identify whats going on and intervene appropriately.
the several stages of burnout
Every job has a honeymoon period where we usually feel enthusiastic. After this initial sheen wears off things naturally become less exciting and possibly less challenging or dynamic. You can feel like you begin to stagnate and this can lead to feelings of frustration. After enduring a consistent period of stagnation and frustration you can become totally disillusioned and slide in to a state of apathy.
Apathy is when you lack motivation to do anything or you just don’t care about whats going on around or in you. Apathy is not always harmful but a persistent experience of indifference, unresponsiveness, detachment and passivity can lead to feelings of exhaustion and this can lead to the onset of depression.
Burnout is a very general term so its important to note it can look differently in different industries. In health and helping industries burnout can look like nervous exhaustion, similar to a nervous breakdown or an emotional collapse. Whereas in many other industries burnout can look more like a long deepening depression. Some industries experience a large numbers of reported burnouts compare to others, and some jobs carry a much higher risk of burnout compared to others.
understanding burnout through awareness
Its important to track the development of your burning out so you can better understand it. This can make it more manageable to deal with. In the early stages you might feel tired, irritable, not your usual self.
Irritability is a wonderfully informative emotion, it tells you something is not okay but in a subtle way. I encourage you to pay attention to when you feel irritated. It is a much easier space to find awareness in, especially compared to anger which easily distorts things. You might become aware that some days being more difficult than others too. Or increasingly difficult over time.
You might notice that your work is the first thing you think about when you wake up and this gives you a pang of dread. Another early sigh is that you are spending less time with people you genuinely care about or feel less connected to them when you are spending time.
This can appear as feeling tense in situations where you would generally feel relaxed, like with friends or family. You might be noticing a lingering preoccupation about work that you can’t seem to shift. This might happen when you least want it to, like when you are with your partner. It can be a low level persistent tension in your body that inhibits your ability to be present. We can cast this off as normal when its infrequent, but ongoing tensions and the inability to de-stress can lead to bigger problems in the future.
When I see a client who describes this stage I help them develop a realistic self care plan and we try and use this opportunity to develop an actionable coping strategy. Often burn out happens because self care doesn’t. If you can’t change the workload, or the hours , or the level of responsibility then you need to look at what you can change. And this is where a realistic self care strategy will save you.
understanding the deeper stages of burnout
Maybe you have had a experience that has made you pay attention or even scared you. I remember when I was working and studying several years ago. I had placed an unrealistically high level of expectation on myself and had taken on too much too quickly.
Burnout is tricky because the space between burning out and actual burnout is elusive and can be tricky predict when you are in it. For myself I had discovered my limit by going beyond it. And this can be a painful situation to find yourself in.
My experience felt like overwhelm, it felt like a vibration, a subtle and disturbing shaking of my body. I felt sick, like I had overdosed and in a way I had. It felt like I had broken something internally. I had a deep sense of concern that I had caused some irreparable damage. My body had entered the early stages of nervous exhaustion.
I am fortunate because I had the support and knowledge to recover relatively quickly. But that experience of burnout has stayed with me. It continually informs me of when I’m in a safe space and when I’m entering a space that is not where I do my best work.
understanding your limits
So I like to look at burnout as an indication of our limits. Increasingly our limits are dictated by others. We live in competitive culture, we live by comparison. Greatness, excellence and perfectionism are our markers. Expectations are distorted and just because we can work like machines doesn’t mean we should.
Understanding our personal capacity is at the heart of burnout. understanding our limit or our capacity can give us information about how clearly defined our boundaries are . Good boundaries show us how and where we do our best work. Our understanding of our capacity is something to be celebrated and respected. We can challenge our limits too, preferably in safe and constructive ways.
Our ability to remain in a tolerable window of stress depends on our ability to regulate our bodies and minds. Some of us are exceptionally good at this, but many of us are not.
coping strategies for stress management
So what are some of the ways you can combat burnout? Make it a rule to check in with your self everyday. Don’t make this complicated or elaborate, your are already too busy.
To check in you just close your eyes, take some slow breaths. Scan your body from your head to your toes and observe what is going on. Take a moment to pause and feel what its like to be in your body. This practice takes 30 seconds, its simple and effective in the sense that it can be enough to disrupt the stress response happening in your body.
Guided meditation are great to aid relaxation. They range in duration, are often free and easily accessible. They can help combat the stress and they also create a space that is separate from work.
Get up and go for a walk, if you need an excuse because you are at work go make a tea, coffee or get some water.
Exercise, diet and sleep play an important role in any self care plan and mental health in general. They may seem like impossibilities right now but do what you can.
Set boundaries and make spaces. For example, when I’m with my partner I’m just with them and I’m not working. The same can go for kids too if you have them. After 9 pm I stop checking emails unless its totally needed. My body and mind are vital for my continuation on this earth I will spend x amount of time each week doing x.
Try and have fun. If you work hard sometimes its good to play hard too. Remind yourself that you deserve it and you are allowed to blow off steam when you need to.
Plan something for the future. If you have something to look forward to like a vacation it can be a wonderful support for getting through hard weeks.
Remind yourself that burnout effects many people and its not a sign of weakness but rather a consequence of the modern standard of work.
But most importantly reach for support when you need it. Whether its through a trusted friend, a workmate, your boss or a therapist. Carrying on strong and silent can take a toll. Dealing with the early stages of burnout are much easier than dealing with the later stages.
If you feel like you are currently struggling with burnout and would like to set up a free consultation to discuss ways forward please contact me here.