I think I could take an educated guess that almost every person reading this blog has experienced or is currently experiencing (or are close to experiencing) burn. The modern world is pretty much designed in a way that reaching burnout is almost inevitable.
Our jobs want more and more from us each day; we are expected to look a certain way; drive a certain car; live in a certain house; our kids are expected to excel at so many things and be involved in multiple groups each week.
Before you know it, chasing all these things leaves us with nothing left for ourselves.
From experience working with hundreds of clients over the past 20 years, I can say with a great deal of confidence that women are at greater risk for burn out than men. Women are generally expected to juggle more things than men and are likely to be less selfish with their time than men.
This usually means they don’t get a break away from things and end up stuck on an endless treadmill of tasks and responsibilities.
So what is burn out and how do you know if you are heading towards it or are already in a bout of burn out?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless and hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
Physical signs and symptoms of burnout
- Feeling tired and drained most of the time.
- Lowered immunity, frequent illnesses.
- Frequent headaches or muscle pain.
- Change in appetite or sleep habits.
Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout
- Sense of failure and self-doubt.
- Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated.
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world.
- Loss of motivation.
- Increasingly cynical and negative outlook.
- Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
Behavioural signs and symptoms of burnout
- Withdrawing from responsibilities.
- Isolating yourself from others.
- Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done.
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
- Taking out your frustrations on others.
- Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early.
These burnout models were produced by Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson.
Another modern day problem is that we can be completely out of sync when it comes to the connection between our mind and body. The reality of it is you do not wake up one day with burn out. On a daily basis our body is giving us a sense of what is going on underneath the covers of our skin.
For example; we start to pick up more colds and flus when we are run down; we get muscle pains and spasms when we are over stressed; our sleep starts to be compromised when our hormones are out of sync; we get an upset stomach when we are worried or overwhelmed. Side note: many people in the west don’t understand the link between their gut and their brain, we often say I had butterflies in my tummy before I had to do a big talk, but we don’t stop and think what this actually means. When we are stressed the body takes blood away from the digestive system out to the muscles which can disturb the digestion process. In reverse if our gut is in poor health it can lead to issues in the brain. An imbalance in the gut has been shown to increase risk for depression and anxiety.
When we are too busy to take heed of these daily signals we are getting from the body trying to let us know everything is not quite right, chances are the body will then start screaming signals at us louder, in a bid to try to stop us in our tracks.
This could be when your neck ceases up, or you get floored by a back spasm or a dark cloud of depression sets in that means we can’t lift our heads from the pillow or we are wiped out by a furious flu that keeps us in bed for days.
With all the distractions, commitments and pressure we are under we often leave the body no choice but to take drastic action to make us stop, and even then we try to ignore it.
Just this week a client shared a story about a colleague of hers who was on business trip in London, she collapsed at the subway station due to stress. This in itself is pretty shocking, what made it even more alarming was that she was at her desk the following day trying carry on as if nothing had happened.
If anyone has seen the episode of Friends where they do an alternative universe and Phoebe is a chain smoking stock broker making work calls as she has a heart attack, this is what this story reminded me of!
Burnout can be attributed to a lot more complex factors than just doing too much with not enough rest. I am currently reading a great book by Dr Rangan Chaterjee called Happy Mind, Happy Life and he talks a lot about being out of alignment with our core values, and he speaks about how our want brain is driving us to strive for more and more (often materialistic goods).
Being out of sync with your core values and allowing our ’want brain’ to control us often leads to anxiousness and discontentment.
When I ask many of my clients what their core values are they will say something along the lines of family, health, relationships and being caring. But when they reflect on their current situation they are overworked; living on caffeine and processed food; not spending enough time with their kids and they say they have less patience in their relationships and have little to no time to help others.
When we live our life out of alignment like this, chances are we’ll hit a brick wall of burnout or mental health issues at some point.
A good example of heading towards burn out was presented to me by a client recently. She had missed a chunk of our sessions because she had trapped a nerve in her neck. This was caused by the huge amounts of stress that she was under at work.
When she came back after her lay off we had a good chat about what had been happening. She spoke of how she had been working around the clock and was no longer spending any quality time with her family. After missing exercise for a few weeks she thought the best thing would be to go do a high intensity exercise class to try and make up for the missed sessions and blow off some steam (a typical Type A person’s response to most things; if something is wrong, you just need work harder and push through it).
Half way through the class her neck got really sore and then she twisted her ankle. She put twisting her ankle down to the fact that she was not focusing on the exercise as her head was buzzing with a hundred different issues.
During our chat she came to the conclusion that things had to change, she had gotten out of sync with her core values and her health was paying for it. She decided that she was going to get better delegating some tasks at work, do some breathing exercises throughout the day, and was going to mark off family time in her diary.
She told me how one day that week she had went for a swim and sauna with her daughter rather than the hard exercise class she previously thought was the right thing for her to do. Finally she turned her work phone off in the evenings, had dinner as a family and did some reading in the evening.
Fast forward one week after our chat and she came into our session looking like a totally different person. Her shoulders were no longer up around her ears, she no longer looked wiped out and she said she felt positive for the first time in a while.
This was a remarkable turnaround in just 7 days.
I wouldn’t expect someone with burnout to get as good a response as this in such a short period of time, but I tell this story to give you an example of the problems had that led her to burn out and what her action plan was to navigate her way out of it. Also to highlight that you can take control of the situation and work your way through it!
Much of what we did in our chat was allowing her to verbalise all the problems she had, then she could start to come up with solutions (I only chipped in with some suggestions when I thought she was looking for some assistance).This process was the turning point for her and has almost certainly put her on a path to a healthier and happier life.
So what other actions can you take to stop burn out or recover from it?
1. Find out your core values. Grab a pen and paper and write down 3-4 of your core values. When doing this make sure that these are your core values and not what society tells you that you should value. It must be personal to you.
Now look at how you are living your life, are your actions in line with your core values. If not, what can you do to start to get them in line with your values?
2. Compartmentalise your life better. Keep work time for exclusively work and when working try and stay on task and maximise your time as best as you can. (I would recommend reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, written by the brilliant Johann Hari).
Away from work keep your time for exclusively non work related activities. I often tell clients unless your job is something like a doctor on call, then taking 30-60 minutes away from your phone is not going to be life threatening and things will almost always wait for you until you return.
If not then you will need to take a close look at how things are structured in your work as being switched on to work at all times will be detrimental for both your physical and mental health.
3. Put up boundaries. Don’t continually say yes to everything in fear of missing out or fear of being seen to be lazy.
This should be easier if you have spent time discovering your core values. Knowing what is important to you makes it easier to make decisions on what you should say yes or no to.
4. Intersperse relaxation activities into your day. That can be something as simple as going for a walk on your break with no phone or doing breathing exercises at your desk.
In the evenings instead of getting suck into the latest hit TV show or going down a youtube rabbit hole, try and find something that you enjoy doing, or even better find something that helps you to de stress.
5. Speak to someone. Ideally you want someone who is a good listener. A good listener is someone that will allow you to speak without judgement. It can also be important that you speak to someone who isn’t a ‘fixer’. Fixers don’t really listen to you, they just want to give you solutions. Getting solutions can be important in your recovery, but only when asked for.
It is likely you will know what you need to do. Having someone listen to you often helps you get out of your own head and can allow you to come up with the answers that you just couldn’t see when you are in the thick of it.
6. Mirror someone. If there is someone you can relate to and respect who might have a better handle on things, find out how they are doing it. If you ask them I am sure they will be happy to have a chat with you and share any wisdom they have on the matter with you.
7. Guard your sleep routine with your life. Make it a priority wherever possible to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is the cornerstone to great mental and physical health. Put things in place to maximise your sleep and control the controllables around sleep as much as you can.
8. Exercise at the appropriate levels. If you are overworked and underslept, now is not the time to be pushing the limits with exercise. It is impossible to improve your fitness levels in these circumstances. Exercise should be kept light, workouts should be designed to energise you rather than deplete you.
For people prone to burn out it may take a shift in mindset from how you have viewed exercise previously. But trust me when I say that exercise can go from being a positive stress for the body to being a negative stress quite easily if you are doing the wrong exercises at the wrong time.
9. Schedule regular breaks. I find it works best for me if I work in 8-10 week blocks, knowing that I have a break from the busy routine coming up in the future allows me to stay focused and positive.
Having regular breaks for recovery will allow you to step off the treadmill of life and you’ll come back from a break feeling refreshed and energised and looking forward to the next 8-10 weeks coming up (this only works if you take a proper break from work).
Checking emails every hour is not going to give your brain the space it needs to recover from being switched on all the time. If it is absolutely essential that you check work emails when you are on holiday then make sure you set a time aside each day to do it.
Then follow this up with a fun activity that will get you back into the holiday mode straight away.
10. Reduce caffeine and sugar intake and migrate over to a healthier diet. This can be difficult when you are burnt out. Chances are you are stuck in the cycle of poor sleep, exhaustion, being overwhelmed and just having too much on your plate.
When you feel like this you are going to lean on caffeine and sugar to give you the energy to get you through the day, and you will also be more likely to reach for junk food to give you a lift when you are feeling down or stressed.
This is why we recommend fixing sleep first. Being tired drastically changes the foods we choose. We also recommend looking at the bigger picture rather than just focusing on what you are eating. This will include reestablishing your core values, and putting a new life plan in place.
Relying on will power and motivation is not going to help you eat healthy if you are in burnout. You need to address the issues that got you there first, and then you can look to fix the diet when you have a better balance and improved energy levels.
11. Limit alcohol. Alcohol is often used as a tool to unwind and to help you get to sleep. The problem with this is multifaceted. Alcohol is a bad sleep aid. It may help you get to sleep, however you will not sleep soundly as alcohol disturbs our hormonal profile which messes up your sleep. Alcohol is also not a good aid to unwind, as it lowers mood and can lead to other poor habits such as poor food choices.
It is recommended that you find a better relaxation method that will have a positive impact on your mood and well being. Such as reading a book, going for a bath or listening to some relaxing music.
I hope you have found this article useful and that perhaps it will help you to pause and reflect on how you are currently living.
Society will have you believe that working 80 hour weeks should be a badge of honour that you wear with pride, and that by constantly striving for more you are going to be happy the end.
Personally I would question these rationales as I know plenty of wealthy and successful people who are now retired and they have told me if you gave them the chance to do it all again they would work a little less and spend a bit more time on their health and focusing on the relationships that they value.
Hey, I’m not saying that it is wrong to be successful and wealthy, I just don’t think it is worth chasing it if it means you have nothing left of yourself to give.
We only get one go at this life and I think we would all want to experience it in an engaged and connected way, brimming with good health and energy.
Regularly flirting with burn out is not and never will be anyone’s goal for themselves. So stay alert to times when you are losing control of things and are heading towards burn out. The quicker you act on it the easier it will be to remedy.
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