You have too much on your plate; you’ve bitten off more than you can chew; you’re up to your ears in demands, stressors, pressure, and an overwhelming workload.
The word ‘burnout’ is not a pleasant word. The image of a flame burning out, when applied metaphorically to the individual, reflects a kind of exhaustion and loss of spirit that may have permanent effects. When we are giving more of ourselves that we physically or emotionally have to give, we will eventually run ourselves into a wall. For those experiencing burnout, or managing employees who are suffering from the phenomenon, it is important to recognize that burnout is not sustainable in the long run and must be well-understood in order to be addressed and ultimately, alleviated.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a term used to describe the overall effect of being in a state of chronic stress. While short-term stress can be healthy and beneficial, prolonged periods of stress can have serious impacts on physical, mental, emotional, social and overall wellbeing. Burnout tends to creep up on us slowly, with dozens of little and not-so-little stressors building up to create a crescendo of strain, tension, anxiety, and worry. Eventually, we may find it difficult or impossible to function in the way we normally do to in our personal and professional lives.
Who Experiences Burnout?
Burnout is most commonly associated with employed persons who face long working hours, a high workload, a demanding career or otherwise stressful work situation. However, it can be experienced by others, such as new parents, hardworking students or those managing their own firms. High achievers and those with a tendency towards perfectionism are especially prone to burnout, as well as any individual who puts pressure on themselves to meet high expectations.
Causes of Burnout
Burnout is typically caused by 1) work-related conditions, such as a stressful work environment, demanding workload, lack of recognition and appreciation, or even monotonous, unchallenging work; 2) by lifestyle factors, including lack of sleep, lack of supportive relationships, or lack of help from others in combination with a high workload, and 3) personality tendencies, such as a need for control, perfectionism, pessimism, and over-achieving qualities. It is important to note here, that all of these factors can be adjusted and improved to reduce the impact of burnout. Even personality traits can be worked on through coaching or self-reflection techniques.
Stress vs. Burnout
Burnout should not be mistaken for normal instances of stress; the two vary from each other in several key ways which are detailed below. Mistaking burnout for stress could lead to underestimating the significance and seriousness of its impact. While stress can sometimes be maintained for a period of time, burnout should be remedied immediately to protect the wellbeing of the individual affected.
Stress is a relatively normal phenomenon that everyone experiences from time to time. Even your most calm and collected friends and family, who may appear never to get stressed out, experience stress when their body triggers its automatic ‘fight-or-flight’ response to get them out of harm’s way. This kind of stress is experienced when something unexpected and potentially threatening happens, such as when we touch a hot burner, are pushed into a pool, or get the feeling of being followed. Our bodies shift to a heightened state of activity and awareness that is beneficial for us in the short term.
When we experience stress the night before a big presentation is due, it can give us the extra boost we need to pull it off and produce great work under time pressure. In this sense, mini doses of stress can actually be a positive thing.
Other times, we experience unavoidable stress as a byproduct of life circumstances. The stress that comes, for example, as a result of a move, new job, divorce, death of a loved one or birth of a child, is a normal experience and its burden on us should, for the most part, diminish once we have taken the time to appropriately respond and adjust in a healthy way to the new situation.
Burnout, on the other hand, can and should be avoided, and does not offer any advantages to those that experience it. If anything, burnout is our body’s way of alerting us that something in our immediate situation must be changed – whether that be a job, work environment, career, behavior or attitude.
The following points are taken from a chart published on helpguide.org; they explain the key differences between stress and burnout which every individual, manager and HR professional should be aware of:
- Stress leads to over-engagement; burnout leads to disengagement.
- Stress causes us to overreact; burnout prevents us from reacting appropriately.
- Stress produces hyperactivity; burnout produces feelings of hopelessness/helplessness.
- Stress makes us lose energy; with burnout, we lose hope and motivation.
- In stress we experience anxiety; in burnout, we experience detachment and depression.
- Stress hurts physical health; burnout primarily damages emotional health.
- Stress can lead to diseases and health conditions that may lead to an early death; burnout may cause you to lose interest in living.
Symptoms of Burnout
Burnout symptoms are generally categorized into the three main groups below. You may have only several of the symptoms, or you may experience nearly all of them.
Physical and Emotional Exhaustion: This area includes symptoms like chronic fatigue, insomnia, impaired concentration, physical symptoms, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, and/or anger.
Cynicism and Detachment: including loss of enjoyment, pessimism, isolation.
Feelings of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment: including apathy, hopelessness, increased irritability, lack of productivity and poor performance.
When You Experience Burnout
To determine if you are experiencing burnout, take the self-test offered by mindtools.com. Ask yourself, is the pressure and stress I am under likely to be relieved soon? If not, you may be experiencing chronic stress or burnout and chances are you will need to make important changes to your daily routine, job, or other components of your life as soon as possible in order to protect and safeguard your wellbeing.
Here are ten tips for coping with and ultimately overcoming burnout:
- Seek Support from friends, family, and/or colleagues – recognize that others have been through this before, and it is possible to change the situation.
- Understand what is causing you stress, and identify ways to minimize stress in those areas.
- Resist the urge to say ‘yes’ to new commitments or responsibilities. Reclaim your sense of peace with a firm ‘no’ when it’s needed.
- Give yourself a time out. This could come in the form of small breaks during the workday, or taking some extended time off to reassess your priorities
- Ask for help managing your responsibilities or if possible, delegate portions of your work to others.
- Speak up – let the people in your life know that you are feeling burned out, including your supervisor, coworker or manager. Let them know it may be time to decide upon a different working arrangement, one that will be more manageable for you.
- Limit time on your devices – that email, text message, or phone call can wait! Take care of yourself rather than spending excessive amounts of time reacting to other people’s requests.
- Reexamine your circle – if friends or colleagues have become sources of stress, focus on finding positive influences by meeting up with new people.
- Embrace exercise and a healthy diet – both of which are effective at combating stress.
- Reevaluate your priorities – look for a new job, cut down on your working hours, or make other changes to your life in order to take better care of your wellbeing!
“Burnout Prevention and Recovery.” Burnout Prevention and Recovery: Signs, Symptoms, and Coping Strategies for Mental Exhaustion. HelpGuide.org, n.d. Web. 07 May 2017.
“The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout … Do You Have Them?” 2013. Accessed November 17, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them.