Last Updated on Thursday, 2 September, 2021 at 9:48 am by Andre Camilleri
Patrick Psaila is a warranted psychologist, executive coach and training consultant. He is the co-director of PsyPotential Ltd, a company that specialises in human factors, leadership and people development in organisations
Over the past year many people have asked me questions about burnout. What is burnout? How can I tell if I am burnt out and what can I do to prevent it?
The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The three main symptoms are:
1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling negative towards one’s career
3. Reduced professional productivity
There are also other typical symptoms that may indicate that we are either burnt out heading towards burnout. Below are some common physical, emotional and behavioural signs and symptoms listed in helpguide.org, a useful and reliable source of information about various aspects of mental health and wellbeing.
• Feeling tired and drained most of the time
• Lowered immunity and getting sick often
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• Feeling like a failure and doubting yourself
• Feeling helpless, hopeless, trapped and defeated
• Feeling isolated, like no one can understand you
• Losing your drive and motivation
• Becoming increasingly negative and cynical in your outlook towards work and life in general
• Significant decrease in fulfilment and sense of achievement
• Avoiding or withdrawing from taking on responsibilities
• Intentionally isolating yourself from other people
• Taking longer to complete tasks than you normally would and avoiding work
• Resorting to comfort eating, alcohol and drugs
• Taking out your frustration and irritation on others
If you can identify with one or more of these characteristics it does not necessarily mean that you are burnt out. This is because burnout is not an all or nothing syndrome. It creeps upon us gradually and occurs in stages. In fact, we may experience many of the items on the list when we feel excessively stressed or pressured. The critical difference between being stressed out and burnt out is the acute level of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that characterises burnout. However, prolonged unmanaged stress can be a precursor to burnout, so it is important that we realise when we are heading in that direction and take the necessary actions before it becomes too late.
The good news is that irrespective of whether we are mildly, moderately or severely burnt out, we can recover and bounce back. Moreover, if we are feeling overstressed and recognise how this can lead to burnout, we can take preventive measures. The following are some practical tips for preventing or recovering from burnout.
Awareness and recognition
The first step in any course of action is awareness. We are often so caught up in the daily grind, that we might either dismiss or totally ignore the warning signs of burnout. It is therefore important that from time to time, we stop and evaluate our working habits, lifestyle and quality of life. We also need to take an honest look at how we are really feeling and where we stand in terms of wellbeing and contentment.
Reaching out to others for support
Social contact and connection are nature’s antidote to stress. When we feel that other people are aware of what we are going through and are there to support us in practical ways, our perspective of our situation changes and things begin to feel more manageable. Sometimes we may also need the professional help of psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists and coaches to help us find our feet. There is no shame in admitting that we are feeling burnt out and that we need help. At work, we need to inform our trusted colleagues and those we report to so that they can offer support.
Challenging and redefining our attitude towards work
We need to ask ourselves what importance our work has in our lives and how much of our time, effort and energy we are giving it. We are not only defined by the work that we do, but by who we are, our personality, values and relationships. By taking a balanced approach towards the way we regard our work we avoid falling into the trap of making it the only source of fulfilment in our lives.
Connecting with what really gives us a sense of purpose
One of the things that gives us the motivation and energy to keep going is having a clear sense of purpose and aligning our efforts with our purpose. This makes it easier to maintain our drive when the going gets tough. However, we also need to be mindful of the fact that sometimes, our commitment and passion towards a meaningful cause can make us blind to the warning signs of burnout. So constant awareness and reflective practice is important to help us maintain balance.
Engaging in good self-care practices
We are all aware of the importance of rest, relaxation, exercise, sleep and healthy nutrition. At the same time these basic self-care practices are often the first things we tend to compromise when we are overly stressed. As a result, we can easily get caught in a downward spiral of pushing through our fatigue until we burn out. Making self-care a priority can go a long way towards burnout prevention and recovery.
Investing in meaningful relationships
There is plenty of solid research that shows how leaning into our close relationships, nurturing our friendships and spending quality time with our loved ones buffers us against life’s slings and arrows. Meaningful connection creates mutual understanding and a safe space to express our vulnerability.
Learning how to switch off work and engage in other activities
Numerous studies from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have shown that working for excessively long hours and the resulting stress can lead to several health problems that can contribute to burnout. These include impaired sleep, depression, impaired memory, diabetes, heart disease and alcohol abuse. Furthermore, it has a negative impact on productivity, decision-making, interpersonal relationships and emotional regulation. It is therefore critical that we balance our week with other activities that we enjoy or that give us the opportunity to express our creative side.
These practical tips enable us to prevent burnout or recover from it. They also contribute towards building our resilience which protects us from burnout and enables us to thrive under high levels of pressure and stress. By making small changes in the right places, we can regain our sense of wellbeing, possibly nipping burnout in the bud. If we feel burnt out, we should take it seriously and commit to a journey of recovery.