With the pressures of inflation and economic uncertainty, staff shortages, the fallout from the pandemic, and political uncertainty, it is common at the moment to hear colleagues talking about burnout. But what does it mean to experience burnout? Burnout is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a type of chronic work-related stress, which causes “physical or emotional exhaustion” that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. It is often characterised by negativity towards work along with feelings of overwhelm and emotional exhaustion.
Moreover, burnout tends to lead to both physical health conditions, such as sleep impairment, reduced immunity leading to more colds and flus, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle tension, high blood pressure and even heart disease, and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety (Gabriel, Aguinis 2022). If left unattended to, it can cause serious problems for individuals and organisations.
How do you know if you are suffering from burnout?
How do you know if you are suffering from burnout? There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself that you should assess over a period of time. Noticing conditions such as poor concentration, lack of engagement with your work, disturbed sleep, increased anxiety, increased irritation at colleagues, perhaps consuming more alcohol or food to destress after work, or noticing problems with your digestion. Because burnout is not in itself a medical condition, it is really about doing some self-refection and deciding whether you feel you need to make some lifestyle changes.
How to prevent burnout
So what can be done to combat burnout and prevent it happening in the first place. A host of measures can be employed but it is largely about building our adaptability and resiliency, which of course extends much further into our lives than just the workplace. Building resiliency is growing our bandwidth to be able to deal with difficult situations.
A burnout analogy that I like involves a donkey carrying packs on its back. Donkeys tend to be very good at carrying heavy loads, but if you add too many packs the donkey will collapse. The solution? To take a few loads off the donkey, to allow it to rest, to give it some time to play with its friends, and to eat some nutritious hay. If the donkey has time to rest and recover it will be able to take up its packs again and keep walking. We are not so different. Some good rest, healthy food, exercise, play with our friends and family all feed into building resilience and adaptability.
If we have pushed ourselves too far and are fully burned out then we will need more time to recover. If you are suffering from long term burnout that has impacted your physical and mental health then you should get professional support. It pays to keep a watchful eye on ourselves so we can take preventative measures before things get to an extreme.
Tips to manage mild burnout
These are some suggestions to help you better manage mild burnout situations:
- Is there support around? Either at work or at home? Do you have someone to talk to about feelings of possible burnout? Connecting with others helps to regulate our nervous system, thus reducing anxiety and stress. It is a good place to start.
- Can you speak to your employer or colleagues about your workload? Is it possible to reduce the load? Is it possible to change the timelines for deadlines so you can factor in downtime? Is it possible to manage expectations of those who are demanding completed pieces of work?
- Can you factor in “me time” into each day? This could be 10 or 20 minutes in the morning and evening for some journaling or a breathing practice. Or it could be taking the dog for a walk.
- Can you take an hour before your go to bed with no screens? This will help your nervous system to regulate with resulting improved sleep.
- Make time for exercise. This can be high intensive, a gentle stroll, or a yoga class. Some movement and time away from your work will help clear your mind.
- Make time for play with friends and family. This could be hiking, biking, going for a meal, watching a football game, whatever it is you enjoy. The key is to have fun, laugh, and connect with others.
- Make time for holidays. These can be staycations or exotic travels but the key is to have a good break from your work environment.
The more you can pay attention to what supports your wellbeing, and to factor this into your daily and weekly calendar, the more resilient and adaptable you will become. And I offer, it will also improve your health, happiness, and productivity.
Gabriel, K. P, Aguinis, H. (2022) How to prevent and combat employee burnout and create healthier workplaces during crises and beyond. Business Horizons Vol 65