How to prevent burnout: take steps before it is too late

Prevent Burnout

I have been perilously close to burning out on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, I have managed to avoid falling into a full downward spiral by taking time off work to gain perspective and soothe my frazzled nerves.

Burnout is insidious. Before you know it, work loses all meaning and your confidence crumbles. At this point, it can go one of two ways. In the best-case scenario, you somehow feel able to put your life on hold and give yourself chance to recover. In the worst-case scenario, you feel unable to take time off work and eventually develop burnout syndrome.

Burnout increases stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can damage organs and nerve cells. As a result, it can have a range of serious consequences including: insomnia, coronary heart disease, hospitalisation for mental disorders, accelerated biological aging, and all-cause mortality. There are no agreed diagnostic criteria for burnout. It is not clear, for example, whether burnout is a form of depression or a distinct disorder (1). Diagnosis aside, burnout develops from chronic occupational (or life) stress, causing the individual to feel that their personal resources are insufficient to deal with life or work demands.

9 signs you are approaching burnout

  1. You are emotionally exhausted: a feeling of “cannot be bothered” abounds
  2. You are overly cynical: you immediately focus on any “negative message” you can find, while disregarding any positive news
  3. Your confidence is rock bottom
  4. Feelings of desperation and a need to escape: you consider abandoning any long-held ambitions and setting up camp in Timbuktu
  5. A desire to hide away and avoid people: you feel very thin-skinned and unable to deal with any (real or imagined) negative feedback. You may become quite paranoid in your thinking.
  6. You stop caring about your work: when before you were anxious, you are now indifferent as to whether your report passes muster. At the same time, you cannot relax, as it feels like a disaster is looming
  7. Your constantly ruminate, especially when in bed or driving
  8. You are experiencing a lingering illness or niggling injury: you may find yourself experiencing both at the same time!
  9. You suffer from some form of sleep disturbance, perhaps unable to sleep or wake very early in the morning. In my case, I had a lot of nightmares.

Why is burnout increasing?

Burnout is increasingly prevalent in modern society. Jobs are less stable. The onus is on the employee to “prove themselves.” Email, skype, and mobile phones mean that you are always accessible. As an academic, I am always chasing the next publication or grant award. If I am not watchful, work becomes all encompassing.

Unfortunately, today’s society appears to value work productivity above health and wellbeing. When I was physically ill recently, I found it very difficult to take time off work, despite knowing that my body (and mind) needed a complete break. There was such a feeling of guilt, and I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way. Over recent years there has been an increase in “presenteeism,” otherwise known as working while sick. A recent survey (2) found that presenteeism is especially likely in organisations where long working hours are the norm, and that increases in presenteeism are linked to increases in stress-related absence. In lieu of organisational changes, it may be prudent for us all to take steps to guard our wellbeing in today’s challenging society, in order to prevent burnout.

3 Important things to do when you feel burnout is imminent

  1. Take a step back to evaluate your situation.

Depending on the demands in your life, you may need to take some time away from work. Find a nice quiet spot, get your favourite drink, and a large notebook. Give yourself enough time to have a thorough review. Questions to ask yourself include:

Are your feelings solely work related?
Are they exacerbated by demanding people in your life?
Have there been changes in your workplace? Is too much being asked of you?
Are you adding to your problems through perfectionism, procrastination, or an inability to say no ?
Are you in the right type of work for you, or did you fall into it/ do what was expected of you?
Is your life centered around work? Do you have adequate downtime and enjoyment in your life?

2. Be kind to yourself

If you are feeling burnt out, your confidence and self-esteem will be at rock bottom. During these times, it is important to do things you enjoy and treat yourself. Take a long bath with a good novel, or watch a funny film (the sillier the better – think bad moms or the 40-year-old virgin). You may be skeptical, but I can honestly say that small steps like these were integral to my recovery process. Once you are feeling a bit better, tapping into your creativity may help. Sketching brings me into the present, helps me develop patience, and calms my mind. Being kind to yourself should be a priority, not an afterthought.

3. Put together an immediate de-stress action plan

Once you have evaluated your situation, it may become clear that you need to make some dramatic long-term changes, such as finding a new job. However, it is important to take a slow and steady approach. Before making any drastic decisions, you need to regain a decent level of strength and stability. To do so, consider making some immediate (low stake) changes, such as:

  • Make technology work for you rather than being its slave

Use apps to help you organise your time, remind you to take regular breaks, meditate , or monitor your moods. Chose when you want to check your emails to avoid constant interruptions. Consider leaving your mobile behind on occasion.

  • Think more carefully before saying yes

People who develop burnout tend to be very conscientious and hard-working. My recent brush with burnout was ultimately the consequence of agreeing to do too many things for too many people. It really is ok to say no, in fact, you will gain more respect in the long run.

  • Take steps to calm your brain every day

For me, one sure sign of impending burnout is a hypersensitivity to noise. We tend to jump in our cars and blast out the radio, put on our headphones when walking, then turn to TV or You Tube once we get home. These things disconnect us from the world , and bombard us with stimuli. No wonder we suffer from frazzled nerves. It seems we have forgotten the calming influence of silence or natural sounds, such as beautiful bird song.

  • Increase non-cognitive activity

This doesn’t have to be the gym or extreme yoga. The key is to engage in something that takes you outside of your thinking brain. I find snooker and badminton very comforting, as they fully engage my attention, and have the bonus of being social. I love running, but find it can exacerbate feelings of stress when I am not fully engaged with my surroundings. Sometimes a mindful hike through the woods feels more therapeutic.

  • Review your approach to relationships

Relationships are incredibly important to our happiness and wellbeing. However, some of us buy into the sunk cost fallacy when it comes to friendships. Just because we have invested our precious time in the past, we feel like we must keep investing time. Consider your friendships; if some cause you more stress than enjoyment, it may be time to cut them loose and seek more reciprocal relationships. If this is too drastic consider setting boundaries with demanding friends or family.

For more information on burnout watch this TedTalk presented by Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President/CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc.:

PLEASE NOTE: Burnout exists on a continuum . The above steps refer to my experiences. I was fortunate enough (with the encouragement from loved ones) to take a step back and recover. If the above steps seem too difficult, it could be time to seek professional help.

References and further reading:

1. Bianchi, R., Schonfeld, I.S., Vandel, P., & Laurent, E. (2017). Burnout-depression overlap: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 36, 28-41
2. Absence management survey at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/absence/absence-management-surveys

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