What is burnout? How can I avoid it? If I do start to see the symptoms cropping up, how can I nip it in the bud?
Burnout is something that occurs when you have experienced levels of stress that are too high for too long, and is characterised by a loss of energy, enthusiasm, and a diminished sense of self.
There are essentially two ways to avoid burnout and they are either a reduction in workload, or an increase in capacity to take work on. The former is established by getting better at pushing back and saying “No” to unreasonable or unworkable demands, and the prioritisation of ones own needs. The latter is not always possible but, when it is, it tends to result from a rather counterintuitive concentration on the importance of rest, recuperation and focus on the aspects of life that are enjoyed away from work.
The most common symptoms are tiredness, lack of motivation, loss of interest, feelings of detachment, negative outlook, feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm, and procrastination.
When you notice these symptoms you have to pay attention to your work-life balance by keeping a strong boundary between the time you spend working and that which you spend doing the other things in life from which you derive joy.
Ask for support if you need it either in terms of help at work, or with your emotions, preferably both.
Burnout occurs when we are in a high stress state for a prolonged time with no space in between to heal. We can cope with a full-on day at work IF we have a rejuvenating evening. The body needs time to take a breath and rest. The nervous system doesn’t like to be at full power for too long so we need to understand what it feels like to be in this state and how to dial it down.
So this seems like a bit of a shortcut of an answer, but Spill have created so many resources on burnout symptoms and recovery that it seems the best thing I can do here is direct you to these resources as they have been well researched and well written for questions just like yours.
The only element I would add to the Spill resources is to consider all the different factors in your life: the above resources are more centred around work. We don’t live in a vacuum. Every part of our world demands some energy from us and/or recharges our energy. Think about your social world, your family, your interests, your relationships, your physical health, etc. Are there any areas that need adjusting or attending to in order to create more balance or health? E.g. seeing friends more/less? more meaningful connection with partner/parents/children? More interests outside of work? For some people, work stress is manageable but they then get home to a difficult relationship/family life which means their stress is never switched off. Hence why looking at the whole picture is important.
Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion. It is related to work stress but may be affected by external issues. Those experiencing burnout may also have low mood and anxiety.
Indicators of burnout are fatigue, feeling self-critical, irritability and decrease in empathy, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating or focusing, a sense of dissatisfaction and physical complaints.
The following are ways to prevent burnout/ deal with it should it occur:
- Set boundaries. Usually when I see people experiencing burnout they are overwhelmed by different priorities and doing too much. Aim to have an awareness of your limits and practice saying ‘no’ when taking on more work is unrealistic.
- Make space for regular relaxation in your life. It might help to schedule this. Relaxation strategies are things that we do that lower our heart rate, slow our breathing down and relax our muscles. Examples are massage, progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, time in nature, yoga…
- Take time out. This means taking a short break every hour at work, avoiding over-working, taking annual leave, and having time off when sick.
- Ask for help when you need it and assert your needs. Often when people tell me they are experiencing burnout I notice that they are avoiding speaking up about what they want and need or that they lack support in general. Consider your resources. This might be things like therapy, coaching, mentoring, friends and family, workplace policies and procedures, HR and your manager or colleagues.
- Make space in your life for hobbies and interests that replenish you.