How to know if you’re heading toward burnout

Women leans over her desk with head in hands, computer in front of her

Stress is a word that gets banded around quite freely. When you ask how someone is doing “I’m a bit stressed but I’m fine” is a phrase I hear a lot, or “This is so stressful” when doing a difficult task. You might even consider yourself quite stressed. But how do you know when stress is something more serious? How do you know when stress is temporary or management, and when you’re on your way to burnout?

What is burnout?

We often think of burnout as a dramatic moment or incident, such as a physical symptom emerging. Ariana Huffington is well known for founding The Huffington Post, but in 2007 she collapsed as a result of exhaustion and burnout. She has used her story to raise awareness of the importance of caring for your well-being.

However, it’s important to remember that many people may experience burnout without having a specific moment where they hit ‘rock bottom’, or experience a physical wake-up call like passing out as Ariana Huffington did.

The word ‘burnout’ brings to mind the image of a fire – literally, when the flame stops burning. This image further reinforces the idea that burnout is a moment.

In fact, you might be on a fast track to burnout right now – or even, you might already be there.

But, how do you know? Here’s what to watch out for…

Exhaustion that is not resolved by a good night’s sleep….

When you experience burnout, your exhaustion typically is not solely caused from lack of sleep. Exhaustion can feel like you are running on a hamster wheel that you can’t get off. If you try to pause, slow down, or take a break, you feel everything will go under.

That fear of losing momentum is present not just within a single day, but over a longer period of time, whether months or weeks. It means that when you wake up, the mental load – meaning the thought of how much work you have to do – already feels exhausting.

In my previous blog post on energy, I explained how your energy levels are impacted by many more factors than purely sleep. The comparison I like to use is that of a phone battery.

With your phone, at the end of the day you can plug it in to charge and it wakes up the next morning 100%. In reality, your body is re-energized by sleep, but also by the food you eat, the psychological strain you are experiencing at a given time, past trauma, your activity levels and many many more things.

If you are overwhelmed with your workload, you may not feel you have time to address these components of energy. You may not feel you have time to cook a healthy, nutritious meal, or to exercise regularly, or to go to therapy to address psychological trauma.

And all of these combined with the stress and strain of the workload also contribute to having low energy.

Cynicism, depersonalization, and emotional distancing

The second component is cynicism, but it can show up in a few different ways.

Cynicism can mean pessimism about the future. You may question whether your job is worthwhile, and it might feel like there is no positive outcome on the horizon waiting for you.

It may also show up as emotionally distancing yourself from your job. For instance, you might find yourself saying things like What’s the point? Why bother doing this job anyway?

This component is also often referred to as depersonalisation. This is when you start to view the people around you as objects. This could mean you see them as problems or as another ‘task’ on your to-do list. You might find yourself saying things like:

How can my mother expect me to attend my cousin Michael’s wedding when I have a kazillion tasks that I need to spend my time on first?

You might also feel separated from the people around you, like you are watching them through a glass wall. Perhaps you notice your friends and family attending a wedding and enjoying themselves, but it doesn’t feel possible for you.

Feeling ineffective or lacking achievement

This factor can be linked to the previous two factors. When you are exhausted, as we already discussed, you might feel unable to do your job well or prioritize the right tasks. Exhaustion can impact your brain’s ability to focus or to make good decisions.

It can also link to feeling pessimistic about the future. If you don’t feel effective at your work, you might also feel pessimistic about your chances for promotion or progression. You may even lose confidence in your ability to retain your job.

If you feel like you are on a hamster wheel, non-stop working, it can feel impossible to step back and see the bigger picture.

Big-picture thinking is key to making strategic decisions, thinking creatively, and moving the needle on bigger projects in your work.

But if you are always fire-fighting your day-to-day tasks, there is no time or space to create meaningful change.

Cal Newport coined the term ‘deep work’, to mean: “the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” It is the deep work that often gets neglected in high-pressure jobs, but it is the deep work that ultimately can make the biggest impact. It is also the type of work that many people find the most satisfying since it brings meaning and fulfillment to your working life.

When you are unable to do this type of Deep Work, in the short term it may not be a problem, but in the long term it can result in feeling empty, disillusioned and can contribute to feeling like you have not achieved anything, even when you know you have worked hard!

Are there other signs of burnout?

Yes! The 3 areas that I have already discussed here are those identified by researchers as common factors among people who experience burnout. But there are other symptoms you may experience, which can be emotional, psychological, spirtual, and physical.

Here are a few further signs you might be getting burned out…

  • Escape fantasies – Does the idea of setting yourself up on a remote island to live off coconuts sound appealing? Or, even more dramatic, quitting your job along with some choice swear words to your boss?
  • Susceptibility to getting sick – Personally, during university, every time I finished exams I got sick. Literally the next day. I felt like I was running off adrenaline and as soon as the adrenaline stopped, my body caved to the illness.
  • Physical symptoms in your body – Physical changes such as skin conditions or hair loss can be indicators that your body is going through stress (although they may also be caused by other factors too!)
  • Mood swings – feeling snappy or angry one minute, but supercharged and optimistic the next.

These symptoms can impact every single aspect of your life, not only your career. Burnout can impact your relationships with your friends, family, and partner. It can impact your physical health, your mood, and your ability to enjoy your life as a whole.

What to do if you think you are experiencing burnout…

If you think you are burned out, there are two ways to address this: individually, or by talking with your organisation.

I recommend you start with yourself, so you can be prepared to have the right conversations with the right people. You may need to first get clear on how you want your work life to look and understand what is possible for you before you start speaking with your boss.

If you don’t feel you have the time even to reflect on your needs, you may need what I call “an emergency stop”. This is a pause that you agree with your employer. It could be a week off, it could be handing over a major project to someone else, or taking a longer break for several weeks. I understand many people won’t feel comfortable doing this, especially since most people experiencing burnout got to this point because they care about succeeding in their work. But sometimes we have to create a moment of pause before life tells us we have no choice (think about Ariana Huffington collapsing and having to take a much longer time off work to recover!)

But of course, address your organization quickly. This may mean a difficult conversation with your boss about hiring more resource. It may mean getting clear on what work you are expected to prioritise. Every situation is different, and it means every organisation’s response may be different. Some companies may be more receptive to feedback and offer you support, others may not. You need to be prepared for either scenario.

In the meantime, begin to address your physical body. Your physical body holds the symptoms of your emotional state. (Sound woo woo? See the book: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk!)

If you feel you are running on adrenaline, your nervous system may be so chronically out of balance that you need to teach yourself how to relax. This is where yoga and meditation can be so powerful. Yoga can simultaneously re-connect you to your physical body and re-regulate your nervous system.

When you feel connected to your physical body and when you are able to regulate your nervous system to bring it into a state of calm, you can begin to psychologically address your mental state.

Often, we try to ‘solve’ the problem at the level of the problem. In other words, you might be trying to ‘think’ your way out of mental pressure and stress, but by regulating your body first, you will gain the peace and calm you need to get clarity on your situation.

The path away from burnout and toward a calm, focused future

I want to remind you that there are always new paths and new choices you can make.

When you feel burned out in your job, it may feel like you are surrounded by problems with no way to resolve the situation. (Remember red flag #2, cynicism? Your mind is telling you the future will not be bright, but you don’t have to listen to that voice!)

I can tell you from personal experience that there is always another path. You can start right now to re-regulate your nervous system, get out of the chronic fight-or-flight state, and move forward with calm, focus and inspired energy. That is the magic and power of yoga.

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