Last year the WHO finally recognised burnout as a stress-based condition that specifically occurs in the workplace. This happened to me and it had a fundamental impact on my relationship with work, and the work I now do. Here's an article to help others who may be struggling with it too.
As Brene Brown says, it’s a spiritual awakening
I may be a tiny bit biased, but I think burnout people are amongst the most inspirational and genuine people on the planet. Apart from being creative, resourceful and usually very good at what they do, they have much to offer because of their experience of losing so much. There’s a lot to learn from the humility that comes burning out. From having to pull on the handbrake whilst driving at 100 miles per hour, coming to a crashing halt, no longer able to make the engine turn over.
Whilst I’m grateful for my spiritual awakening, burnout has a lasting impact on your life. It is not something that goes away once it’s happened. In fact, it may happen more than once. That is not talked about enough. You are left with shame to manage, a work identity in tatters, and a need to make big changes to be healthy and happy again. Eventually, you come to see meaning and value in your experience, and from there you can grow from it. Until you do, it’s like having a bad-ass splinter that, once in a while, digs in hard to remind you that you’ve veered off track again. And staying on course is tough, because you’ve got to look at work, and life, differently.
Once you’ve burned out, you have to wake up to the fact that your body, not your brain, is where all of your genius lives. It’s your new sat nav and you have to master turning up its volume if you want to be your best self again. Those that ignore it do so at their peril. That’s quite a challenge for us headstrong, capable types who still believe we can do anything!
So, how can you recognize this in yourself before it gets out of hand?
BE CLEAR ON WHAT BURNOUT IS
Burnout is one of the most over-used words on the health and wellbeing circuit. It is often used interchangeably with stress or exhaustion. Or muddled up with depression. It is none of these things, although they might be symptoms.
You see much focus on the individual and their personality in conversation about burnout - perfection seeking, workaholic high achievers who need to know when to stop. It’s frequently implied that burnout is an individual’s choice, and “getting over it” requires reigning in your tendency to work harder than other people.
More recently, there has been recognition of the impact of our increasingly challenging work environment on its prevalence - an always-on culture, 21st-century challenges with time, unrealistic expectations amplified by media and cultural norms, work where it's up to us to set our own boundaries and unhealthy organizational ways of working. Our conversation around diversity and inclusion is part of this too. When people don't feel valued, or worse, discriminated against, it has a lasting psychological impact that hurts. This viewpoint is growing traction, especially when we look at the rise of burnout in certain spheres – universities and health care professions, for example.
What makes burnout a challenge to grasp is that it is complex. In truth, it’s about the individual and the work. It’s the result of a complex malfunction between the worker, the work and the workplace. It’s kind of like a bad relationship. It’s started out as a love affair full of hope, meaning and possibility. Yet for a myriad of reasons, it isn’t working out.
To know the root cause, you have to look at all parts of the relationship. The six measures, identified by the most expert in this field, are a good place to start. They look at workload, control (and the facade of it), reward, community (nurturing culture or toxic one), fairness and values (yours and the organisations). These are the key aspects of our work experience that can make work feel amazing to us, and be a place where we thrive and grow. Or can be what literally break us.
CONNECT TO YOUR DRIVERS OF WORK ENGAGEMENT
It’s true there’s a ‘type’ that are more susceptible to burnout. In a nutshell, it’s people who are very heart-centred about their work. In many ways, they look like the dream employee – engaged, committed, enthusiastic, generous and energetic, people who want to do an amazing job. These are words you might see on any job description as desirable traits.
That said, us burnout people probably have these qualities more strongly connected to our core identity and would most likely agree to many of these statements:
: you wear your energy level as a source of pride and love how you can take anything on
: you are drawn to huge challenges and see them as a personal hurdle to overcome
: you have high expectations as a norm in your life, achieving/mastery matters to you
: you are very motivated by your impact on others/causes
: you have a tendency to over-give and under-receive
: a lot of your identity comes from your work
KNOW WHEN YOU’VE LOST THE PASSION
If you’ve recognised yourself so far, you’ll know the importance of putting your energy in the right place. You can be a force for great things, but if you are in the wrong relationship, it’s a recipe for disaster. As a highly engaged type, you’ll have lots of passion, so when it’s withering, you’ll know something’s wrong.
Yet losing your passion is harder to spot than you think. That’s probably because we are people who want to make things work. So, when things stop working, we try harder. What’s confusing is that ‘making it work’ becomes the new passion. And this focus and energy on keeping it together/carrying on/making it work/focusing on others (delete as appropriate), means you lose sight of the truth.
Here are some focusing statements to help you check back in with yourself. Sit down with readiness to be totally honest in what feels true for you:
: The job feels almost impossible to be successful at
: You don’t feel valued or respected by peers or your bosses
: You can’t be effective because the workload is never ending
: You question the integrity of what you / your company do
: You don’t feel good about your contribution anymore
: You are expected to be accountable with no real power
: You don’t feel you have the support you need /want at work
LISTEN TO YOUR INTERNAL SAT NAV
How good are you at listening to your body? This can be so hard to do when you are feeling like there are not enough seconds in the day to get everything done. Overwhelm is one of the biggest red flags for burnout. That can be a scary and isolating place.
At first, you might notice, that everything feels just a little bit harder than before. You can’t get as much done. You are finding it harder to focus. Your struggle to plan. You’ll start dropping the ball. You’ll feel on edge, possibly irritable or cynical in a way that is at odds with how you usually are. You’ll be doubting your ability and effectiveness. That might mean you are on overdrive trying to keep a state of normality. Which can affect your energy levels – at times frenetic energy, then others with 2% battery in the tank. You might develop physical ailments like headaches or digestion related issues as a result.
As it progresses, there are two important things to keep an eye on:
: is your body craving shut down?
Burnout is bad for our nervous system as we spend unhealthy amounts of the day in extreme overload and fight or flight and lose our natural flow in how we react. To compensate, our body craves rest and recovery, so having no energy at the weekends, sleeping a lot, feeling unsociable, not wanting to be around others can result.
: do you actively seek escapism?
Finding that escapism has shifted from being a fun reward to an essential coping mechanism is also a red flag. Escapist activities can be anything from the dulling effects of hours of box sets, to heavy nights out, to extreme workouts all in aid of making you feel better. The “healthy” stuff can be unhealthy too.
My parting invitation is to make space for more listening. Your body has a lot to say. I invite you to keep a well-being journal, or even just notes on your phone if that's easier. The signs creep up slowly, so the one thing that will certainly help is getting better at listening to them
Pick a regular time in the day to check in, perhaps on the train to work in the morning. Close your eyes for a moment and focus on your breath and just notice what is happening inside. Slowly explore from your feet up to your head to see how your body is feeling. Notice where the tension sits and listen closely to what it is trying to tell you. Jot down a few notes. Over the course of a week, look back and see what that picture reveals to you.
Self-care needs to be a priority. It’s the only way back to normality. Remember, burnout is a state, not an illness, and it will pass. Be well and look after yourself.