Prolonged periods of stress at work can put your mental – and physical – health at risk.
How many times have you uttered that phrase about work? A lot, most likely. 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.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stressful periods. 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 done.’
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. People may also find themselves on the road to burnout if they lack support from their managers and unreasonable expectations.
How do you spot burnout?
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. Many find themselves unable to reduce or stop work during this period, and they continue to live their life in overwhelm.
Burnout can present itself physically, too: you’re likely to feel deeply tired. Some even notice body aches and the feeling of heaviness, which means getting up to do anything can feel like a chore.
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 you have family and friends around you, you may also feel detached from the world, not wanting to burden anyone with your problems. This can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
All of the above means those suffering from burnout may turn to negative lifestyle habits to help them deal with the feeling of dread at work. You may stop socializing with your family and friends, procrastinate excessively, and even turn to alcohol as a way to calm the noise in your head.
“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
So, the key to spotting burnout? Try asking yourself – or a friend in need – these five questions:
Are you working extremely long days without breaks or a lot more than 40 hours a week?
Are you constantly tired, mentally and physically, when you think about your job?
Do you find yourself looking at each situation negatively rather than trying to tackle it?
Do you feel helpless or overwhelmed often?
Does every day seem like a bad day?
What can you do to recover?
Burnout can fester and is unlikely to go away on its own. Thankfully, you can turn it 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.
Recovering is about learning what to do to regain your balance and feel positive and hopeful again.
Practically, there are immediate things you can do: Take a break; even a couple of days will do wonders to shift 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.
Secondly, ensure you have healthy habits in your life. While taking that break, get a solid amount of unbroken sleep; hydrate yourself throughout the day; eat well-balanced meals; spend time outside. These will give you a good foundation for your wellbeing.
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? Drawing, cooking, meditation, going outside in nature, seeing your family? 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.
The next thing to focus on is to start reframing your thinking. As I said, burnout can leave you in a state of constant negativity, and that requires unlearning what your brain is automatically telling you.
Your brain is a meaning-making machine, which creates stories that appear factual but may not be. 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. Knowing you need to change your lifestyle to get out of it is the next. You can do this.