Burnout is not reserved for a particular profession, gender or job role – whether you are a business leader, doctor, artist, hospitality worker or the IT guy – you are still human and vulnerable to the impact of chronic work stress. Here is how to recognise it, rest and bounce back from burnout to flourishing.
Joseph* didn’t hear the words being spoken to him, he was lost in his own thoughts, so it took a minute before he realised he had been asked a question. He was annoyed at himself for losing attention, but it came out as irritation at the person asking the question. He only realised this when he saw the startled look upon their face as he snapped back a response.
The mood in the meeting tensed up and the last twenty minutes felt like an eternity for everyone. Normally Joseph would have remained focussed or at least able to regulate his emotions so that others were not impacted or distracted by his mood. Not today.
As a respected and successful business leader, Joseph was a high achiever, hardworking and dedicated to his clients, colleagues and business.
He knew that his ambitious career choice would be mentally and physically challenging, especially when trying to juggle the demands of the job with the hopes and expectations of his own young family.
However, the last few years had been something else, not just for him but for many of his colleagues. Pandemic protocols, staff shortages, major logistical challenges and high expectations had created the perfect conditions for physical and emotional exhaustion – something he had seen happen to colleagues but thought he was immune from.
But today Joseph had woken up feeling unwell and overwhelmed, again.
The signs had been there for a while and he had made some attempts to let others know, to request support, and to try and reset work-life boundaries. He had extended his last holiday by an extra week, thinking that would give him time to recover from a tough year.
While it helped, the effect was short lived.
Burnout is sneaky. It creeps up on you inch by inch. A bit like boiling a frog. The frog notices if it is placed in boiling water and jumps out. However, if you place it in cold water and slowly heat it up, it doesn’t notice, so it stays until the water is boiling and… well, you know how the story goes.
While, in reality, frogs may not be as stupid as we think, the metaphor is a good one to describe the insidious nature of long-term stress.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is the result of being exposed to chronic work stress – or a slow boil – that places the body and mind under duress and leads to the kind of physical and emotional exhaustion you might experience at the end of running a marathon.
Activities or challenges that used to bring energy and motivation instead become overwhelming and you are no longer able to function as effectively; professionally or personally.
Often, we think of stress being caused by difficulty or crisis, however, it can also be created by too much of a good thing. Trying to grab hold of too many amazing opportunities without the adequate resources of time, energy, people, and finances to meet the ongoing demand.
Regardless of the stress being caused by opportunity or threat, the impact can be the same.
Burnout doesn’t discriminate between profession, gender or job role, we are all human and vulnerable to the impact of chronic work stress. This is especially true if you do not have the psychological tools, organisational and social support to manage it.
The International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual describes burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
- Reduced professional efficacy – feeling ineffective or a lack of progress/achievement.
According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is not considered a medical condition in and of itself, however, it is often a precursor to significant mental and physical illness if left unchecked. It can also negatively impact individual and team performance at work and in other important life domains, such as relationships and parenting.
The journey to burnout is marked with warning signs and, if you know what to look for, you can recognise them and take action before it is too late.
Each symptom exists along a continuum from mild to severe and the earlier (milder) the symptoms, the easier to turn things around.
Examples of changes in thinking, feeling and behaviour that you may see in yourself or in colleagues experiencing burnout are:
Fatigue: In the early stages of burnout, you may feel a lack of energy and a tiredness that takes longer than usual to recover from. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, depleted most days, and no amount of coffee, sugar or sleep revives you.
Sleep: Initially, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep, or you do sleep but never wake feeling refreshed.
Appetite: Weight fluctuations can happen, either because you crave more sugar and fatty foods, or you lose your appetite, skip meals, and eat less.
Memory and Attention: Lack of attention, mild forgetfulness and minor errors are early signs of burnout. Later, the problems may get to the point where you struggle to maintain task focus, the workload takes longer to get through, or just builds up.
Mood Changes: You might find yourself feeling more anxious, or on edge. This can lead to irritability and anger, maybe finding yourself short and snappy with others, or yourself. It can also manifest as feelings of sadness, lack of interest or enjoyment in your usual activities, hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness. At the more severe end, this mood change can develop into an anxiety disorder or episode of depression.
Physical Symptoms: These can include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gut pain, light-headedness and/or headaches that increase in frequency and duration.
Detachment and isolation: Detachment is a general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. It can take the form of avoiding social interaction or work tasks and responsibilities. You might cancel a lunch date, call in sick, avoid making phone calls or returning emails.
Illness: Chronic stress weakens your body’s immune system, making you more vulnerable to coughs, colds, and physical injury e.g. strained or pulled muscles.
Performance: The changes in thinking, feeling and behaviour can all lead to being less effective or productive at work. People will often respond in the early days by working longer hours to ‘catch up’ or ‘stay ahead’, which just results in increased stress and likelihood of burnout. Even minor mistakes or drops in performance can be challenging for self-identity, particularly for high achievers or perfectionists. This can lead to deflecting blame or responsibility to outside circumstances or other people, or to excessive self-criticism.
To uncover more about the steps from burnout back to flourishing, read part two of this series, Break, and shake burnout.
The information on this website is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it to be used for diagnosis and treatment. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional advice and treatment from General Practitioners and/or qualified practitioners and providers in specific cases of need. If you or the person you are concerned about appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate professional assistance.
* Client name changed for anonymity
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Burnout, E. & A. Nagoski [Book]
Workplace Stress, Heads Up [Website]
Break and Shake Burnout, The Mind Room [Blog article]
Reclaim rejuvenation, The Mind Room [Blog article]
Values Cards, The Mind Room [Shop]
Headspace App [Download]