Prolonged periods of stress at work can put your mental – and physical – health at risk.
What number of times has this phrase been used about work? Most likely, a lot. And you’re not alone; being “stressed” is something that happens to the majority of us a lot during our careers and in our lives.
There will always be times when it feels like there’s too much to do – too many deadlines to reach, too many decisions to make. But it’s when this stress seems never-ending, leaving you to feel overwhelmed and to undermine your abilities and lose motivation for your work; burnout can rear its ugly head.
A condition of extreme stress that is prolonged and for too long can cause burnout. Rather than just feeling like there’s too much to do, burnout is when it has reached a point of extreme overwhelm and you have the feeling of giving up – of throwing your hands up and saying, ‘I’m Do it.’
In 2019, ‘burnout’ was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon,’ with the WHO saying it’s a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been well-managed. Burnout isn’t classified as a medical condition – but this recognition was a huge step forward, as it put a label on something many people were experiencing.
According to a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 US workers, burnout can stem from a range of factors, but most likely: poor treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, and a lack of clarity about a person’s role and priorities. Unsupportive managers or unreasonable expectations can also lead to burnout.
Is it possible to identify burnout early?
The issue with burnout is that it can creep up on you – and only when you’re completely in it do you realize you’ve pushed yourself too far.
The most common way it presents itself is through mental exhaustion, characterized by feelings of having “no brain space,” drained of any emotional resource and a lack of enthusiasm for work and everything around you. This can lead to many living a life of overwhelm and not being able to cut back or stop their work.
Burnout can present itself physically, too: you’re likely to feel deeply tired. Burnout can manifest as heaviness or body aches, making it hard to get up and do things.
When you’re in the midst of burnout, you’re likely to feel there’s no way out – you’ll feel helpless or defeated, as if things will never get better. This leads to a very negative view of the world, where you’re unable to see the positives and instead have continuous cynical thoughts.
Even if there are family members and close friends you might feel isolated from the outside world. Feelings of loneliness can result from this.
To cope with their feelings of anxiety at work, people suffering from burnout might adopt negative lifestyle choices. To calm your mind, you may cut off contact with family members and friends and procrastinate.
“In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel “burnout” setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” – Dalai Lama
The key is to spot burnout. Try asking yourself – or a friend in need – these five questions:
Are you working very hard, often without breaks, for more than 40 hours per week?
When you think of your job, are you always tired?
Is it possible to see each situation as a problem and not try to resolve it?
Are you often feeling helpless and overwhelmed?
Does every day seem like a bad day?
How can you recover from this?
Burnout is a condition that can linger and will not go away by itself. There are ways to turn this around. In a 2011 study aimed at improving burnout recovery, researchers Hahn, Binnewies, Sonnentag, & Mojza gave participants training about the importance of self-care, goal setting, time management, and disengaging psychologically from work, and other strategies – and it showed positive results in just one week.
Recovery is all about finding the right steps to restore your sense of balance, and to feel hopeful and optimistic again.
You can actually do immediate things: A short break for a few days is enough to boost your energy. Instead of saying to yourself, “I can’t, there’s too much work on,” be kind with yourself. If you constantly think your business or job will fall apart if you’re not there, you’ll be on a continuous road to burnout.
The second is to make healthy choices in your daily life. You should get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, drink enough water throughout the day, and spend some time outdoors. You will have a strong foundation for your health and well-being.
Finding the time and space for regular, daily self-care will help strengthen this and give you a powerful reminder that you’re in control of your own happiness. It’s easier said than done in a crisis, which is why it’s important to know what small actions make you feel good – write them down on your phone as a go-to when you feel a little desperate. Running, perhaps? Perhaps drawing, cooking, meditation or going out in the natural world to see your loved ones. A strong support system is crucial, too, allowing you to offload negative thoughts and have someone listen to what’s going on inside your head.
Next, you need to shift your perspective. Burnout, as I mentioned, can lead to a constant negative state. This requires you to unlearn what your brain tells you.
Your brain creates meaning by creating stories which appear to be factual, but are not. More than 90% of your thoughts are subconscious, so – without even realizing it – you make instant judgments about situations based on biases you may not even know exist. Becoming consciously aware of your thoughts – as well as the biases they may be presenting – is a way to look at your life, your work, and challenging situations in a new light.
The ability to reinterpret a challenging situation is an important one – it needs to be optimistic yet realistic, and you need to believe you can achieve what’s suggested. This can be done with the support of others, so you can get reassurance that you’re not putting too much on yourself.
But it’s important to remember, recovery needs those two solid building blocks: those practical steps of you looking after your health and the mental work needed to retrain your brain to look at situations in a new light. Accepting you’re in a state of burnout is the first, major step. The next step is to recognize that you must change your life to escape from it. This is possible.