Burnout, your career’s worst enemy. Not only threatening your job but your relationships and your health. Burnout is not just feeling too knackered to get out of bed in the mornings, missing a few deadlines, or forgetting to reply to an inbox full of emails. It’s not just the mood swings or feeling sad or bursting into tears when you realise there’s no coffee in the house. Burnout is total system breakdown caused by prolonged exposure to unmanageable stress, leading to emotional, physical and cognitive exhaustion. Symptoms of burnout are becoming increasingly common as our work lives become busier, more demanding, and more stressful. Whether you have a job that leaves you rushed off your feet or one that is monotonous and unfulfilling, the most effective way to combat job burnout is to quit and find a job you enjoy and love (if you’re lucky) instead. Of course, for many of us changing job or career is far from being a practical solution, we’re grateful just to have work to pay the bills. Whatever your situation, there are still things you can do to improve your state of mind. Although there are many early warning signs, many of these go unnoticed and are dismissed as ‘stress’, therefore it’s important that your able to recognise the symptoms of burnout in order to take the necessary steps to help you regain your balance.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
Research shows that burnout has three dimensions: physical and emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment and depersonalisation. Each area is characterised by certain signs and symptoms which are listed in the table below:
|Physical signs||Emotional signs||Behavioural signs|
|Chronic fatigue||Sense of failure||Withdrawal from responsibilities|
|Weaker immune system||Feeling helpless, defeated and trapped||Isolation|
|Changes in appetite||Loss of motivation||Irritability and anger|
|Physical pain||Cynical and negative outlook||Drugs or alcohol to cope|
|Unusual weight fluctuation||Loss of satisfaction||Absenteeism/ poor attendance at work|
What causes burnout?
Work related causes: fear of job loss, excessive workload demands, lack of control or clear direction, working in a chaotic or high pressure environment, inflexible work hours, conflicting job expectations, lack of recognition or reward for good work.
Lifestyle causes: Taking on too many responsibilities with little help, working too much, not having enough time to relax or socialize, lack of supportive relationships and lack of sleep.
Personality traits contributing to burnout: Pessimistic view of self and the world, Perfectionistic – nothing is ever good enough, High-achieving, Type A personality, or the constant need to be in control – reluctant to delegate.
According to executive coach, Monique Valcour, rebounding and preventing the recurrence of burnout requires the following three things: replenishing lost resources, avoiding further resource depletion, and finding or creating resource-rich conditions going forward. Here are some steps to help you deal with burnout as well as prevention for the future.
Tips to combat burnout
Reframe the way you look at work. People tend to be more satisfied with their job if they find it is meaningful and allows them to use a lot of their skills that they value. To help you reconnect with what you initially loved about your job, try to find some value and meaning in what you do. Ask yourself, is there anything good about my job? In which ways am I contributing or helping someone? Link this to a strength/quality and notice how that strength is making a difference. Changing your focus to the positive aspects of your job can help you regain a sense of control and purpose.
Take the opportunity to reassess. Burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to slow down and give yourself time to reflect, rest and heal. Whilst some things about your job are in your capacity to change, others are not. If, for example, the culture of your organization is characterised by pervasive incivility, it’s unlikely that you will ever thrive there. Or if the content of the work has no overlap with what you value most, finding work that’s more meaningful may be an essential step to thriving. For many people, burnout is the lever that motivates them to pause, reassess, and create a career that’s more satisfying than what they’d previously imagined.
Find balance in your life. If you hate your job, look for meaning and satisfaction elsewhere in your life: in your family, friends, hobbies, or voluntary work. Focus on the parts of your life that bring you joy. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout, try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work, which are highest in value and most energizing. If your entire focus has been on your career, see how you can invest more time and energy into building a support system of trusted people, a good place to start is reconnecting with loved ones. Not only will this help you receive more support and empathy, but it is an excellent way of releasing the build up of stress and blowing off steam when necessary.
Increase job resources. Depending on your role and work environment, one thing that many people struggle with, is reaching out to colleagues for support. See if you can name just one co-worker who can help you get through a rough day. Having strong ties in the workplace will not only help counter the effects of burnout and reduce monotony but will also improve your job performance. If you find that there are certain relationships that are especially draining, limit your exposure to those people, instead think about when and how you can interact more with co-workers you find stimulating.
Reduce exposure to job stressors. Your condition may warrant a reduction in your workload or working hours, or taking some time away from work. Try to keep a record of which tasks are associated with low mood/negative energy using an Activity Diary and see if you can drop or even delegate these tasks to the extent possible. Increase your exposure to the tasks, people and situations that replenish you and limit your exposure to those that drain you. Reflect on whether you have perfectionist tendencies, if you are one of those types that obsess over every detail and micromanage to make sure “everything is perfect,” you need to stop. Change your motto to performing your best. Delegate the things that aren’t necessary for you to do personally. Commit to disconnecting from work at night and on the weekends. Set boundaries – don’t overextend yourself, assert yourself and learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that you truly want to do.
Prioritise taking care of yourself to replenish personal resources. Okay, so it’s a cliche, but your health is everything. There is no job that’s worth your health or your sanity. Prioritise good sleep habits, exercise, nutrition, connection with people you enjoy, and practices that promote calmness and well-being, like yoga, meditation, journaling, or simply quiet time alone doing an activity you enjoy. Are you guilty of not giving yourself a break during the day? Well you’re not alone. Most of us go through the day using a “push, push, push” approach, assuming we’ll get more done if we work the full eight to ten hours straight. But what we don’t consider is the decrease in productivity, rising stress levels, and the very little energy remaining by the time you’re home. So lets be honest, all it takes is scheduling short breaks throughout the day, whether it’s to stretch at your desk, take a walk or to do a breathing exercise. Research has shown that if we have intense concentration for about 90 minutes, followed by a brief period of recovery, we can clear the buildup of stress and rejuvenate ourselves. Specifically relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can activate the body’s relaxation response. On the other hand, a short break may not be sufficient and instead you may need to take a complete break from work if burnout seems inevitable. You might want to consider using up your sick days and go on vacation, if that’s not an option then ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Use this time away to recharge your batteries and pursue other burnout recovery steps.
If you think your experiencing burnout, do not ignore it, it will not resolve by itself. The consequences of untreated burnout are grave, including depression, anxiety, hypertension, coronary disease, gastrointestinal, substance abuse, marital and family conflict, alienation and diminished career prospects. To get back to thriving, it’s essential to understand that burnout is fundamentally a state of resource depletion. Imagine a car with no fuel, would you attempt to continue to drive it because you would like to get home? In the same way telling yourself to “pull yourself together”, will not help you overcome burnout. It’s important to take the necessary steps as soon as you recognise the warning signs, to help get yourself back on track.