We all recognize when we’re suddenly stressed out: heart-pounding, chest tightness, a general sense of ‘no, no, no!’ welling up inside. Usually, the danger passes, and we can move on with our lives. But if it lasts a little longer than, say, a few hours, stress tends to take on a different shape.
There might be sleepless nights, odd eating patterns, tummy troubles, or headaches. This can carry on for days, weeks, or even months. Eventually, we end up being like a frog in slowly boiling water. Things are heating up, but we haven’t fully realized something’s wrong. This is when you become at-risk of burnout (a condition recently recognized by the World Health Organization in its International Classification of Diseases). While recovering from burnout is amazing, knowing how to avoid burnout in the first place is always best.
Burnout sucks the energy, creativity, and fun out of life. In your mentally and physically exhausted state, everything becomes a near-impossible chore: family, friends, your career. If left untreated, it becomes a serious health concern. The problem is, like that frog in slowly boiling water, it’s not always easy to spot.
In this article, we’ll share our top tips on spotting burnout, strategies for putting on the breaks, avoiding burnout, and recovering after an episode. Read on to learn more.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a condition that leads to severe emotional, physical, and psychological exhaustion. It can be the body’s response to extended periods of stress — like working long hours, worrying about your health, caring for a sick family member, or regularly being exposed to upsetting news.
“Burnout is the cumulative result of unresolved and chronic stress,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Roberta Babb. “Generally, there are three main types. You can be burned out by being overworked and overloaded (“frenetic” burnout), but also by its opposite, “boreout”, where you may feel “consistently under-challenged or underworked.” “It may seem counterintuitive, but we need a certain amount of stimulation in our daily work and lives in order to perform and feel satisfied.”
The third type is “worn-out burnout” – just being depleted. “People have low amounts of energy and feel exhausted on an emotional, physical and social level,” she adds.
One of the most insidious things about burnout is its cyclical nature. The more stressed and exhausted you become, the less able you are to deal with everyday stresses and responsibilities. This, in turn, makes your exhaustion worse.
If left untreated, burnout can lead to a range of serious health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression. This is why it’s so important to get acquainted with the symptoms, learn how to avoid burnout, and take steps to stop burnout before it takes hold.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Before we can look at how to avoid burnout, it helps to clearly define what that really means. Much worse than normal stress or fatigue, burnout makes people feel like they’ve got nothing left in the tank. They may find even the smallest of tasks an enormous challenge or dread getting out of bed each morning.
The symptoms of burnout affect everyone differently, but here are some red flags to look out for:
- Exhaustion: If you feel physically tired and find things like getting out of bed in the morning a huge struggle, it could be a sign something’s wrong. Other physical symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, and sleep changes.
- Irritability: When we’re stressed, we’re less patient. We feel like every request or responsibility is an enormous ask, especially if things don’t go as planned. As a result, we can get a bit snippy. If you find yourself snapping at friends, family, or coworkers, it could point to an underlying problem.
- Withdrawal: People heading towards (or in the midst of) burnout tend to feel overwhelmed. So, to protect themselves, they isolate themselves to minimize stressors. Pay attention if you or someone you know starts avoiding friends and family.
- Escape fantasies: People with burnout often dream about being almost anywhere else. They may even fantasize about getting sick, so they have an excuse to stay in bed. Others might turn to alcohol or other drugs as a means of escape.
- Regular illness: Burnout and stress lower your immune system — so if you find yourself catching every illness that comes your way, it could be a sign you’re overworking your body. On top of that, burnout can also lead to depression, anxiety, and a range of other physical health problems, including chronic pain.
Burnout in the workplace
“Burnout can occur when we face chronic work stress,” explains David Ballard, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Applied Psychology. “We are really only equipped to handle stress in short bursts — so when we face elevated levels of stress at work for a long time, we risk burning out.”
“If it’s not managed effectively over time, it can affect job performance,” said Ballard. “It can leave one feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and ineffective on the job. Job performance can also suffer,” he adds.
A recent study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization revealed that working at least 55 hours a week was causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. They also found a link with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.
“Job burnout is a response to work stress that leaves you feeling powerless, hopeless, fatigued, drained and frustrated,” says Dr. Audrey L. Canaff, a UC Foundation Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “But since job burnout is not an overnight occurrence, it’s important to recognize its early signs and to act before the problem becomes truly serious.”
What causes burnout in the workplace?
It’s important to remember that any one thing doesn’t usually cause burnout, rather a cocktail of things that build up over time. Here are some common stressors that could lead an individual towards burnout:
- A lack of autonomy in their day-to-day tasks
- Having unclear goals or job expectations
- Not having enough time to complete tasks
- Working in a dysfunctional team or organization
- Having an overly critical manager
- Lacking recognition for work
- Having monotonous or low-stimulation work
- Having little support from your boss
- Poor communication from colleagues or managers
How to avoid burnout
It’s almost impossible to avoid stress, but burnout is completely preventable. Here are some practical steps to help you avoid burnout in life and the workplace.
1. Recognize the signs
Knowing the signs of symptoms is half the battle. Once you know how to spot them, you’ll be able to take remedial action sooner. Be aware that the symptoms vary from person to person — so if you feel like something isn’t right, pay attention — it could mean you need a break.
2. Get moving
Exercise is good for our physical and mental well-being. The good news is you don’t need to head to the gym or run for miles to reap the benefits (though both of these options are good). Short walks or 15-minute HIIT exercises on YouTube (there are lots to choose from) are a great way to get blood flowing and endorphins running through your body.
3. Practice good sleeping habits
Getting enough sleep — between seven and nine hours for adults — is vital for our health and well-being.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding caffeine and screens before bedtime (ban smartphones from the bedroom) and establishing a good bedtime ritual. This could include taking a relaxing bath before bed, reading, or practicing meditation before you close your eyes.
4. Eat healthily
Don’t stress out about what you eat, but do try to go for healthier options where possible. Filling your diet with foods rich in vitamins and minerals will keep energy levels up and give your mood a boost. On the flip side, opting for sugary snacks and caffeinated beverages when you’re feeling depleted might pick you up momentarily, but you’ll soon crash and feel more tired than you did before.
5. Stop and ask for help
If you’re spotting the signs of burnout, it’s time to stop. If that’s difficult — for example, you’re not sure how, or you don’t think you can — reach out to close friends, family, a doctor, or your boss if you can trust them.
6. Learn to take control
We often feel stressed when we lack autonomy. At work, speak to your manager and see if there are ways they can let you have more control over your workload, schedule, or deadlines.
You’ll also feel more in control if you learn to manage your time effectively outside of work. This means making sure you set enough time aside for hobbies, friends, family — but also yourself. If you feel like you’re being pulled from one obligation to another, it may be a sign you need to get better at drawing boundaries and saying no.
“Schedule free time on your calendar, just like you would schedule a meeting, and stick to it. It’s crucial to take the time you need for yourself, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day. You’ll get back to work feeling recharged and inspired, and chances are, you’ll accomplish a lot more than you would if you worked straight through the day,” says Evrim Oralkan, Founder and CEO of Travertine Mart.
7. Learn to manage stress
We all handle stress differently, but we can all learn to manage it a little better. There are a few strategies you can use, such as practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques, doing exercise, or trying meditation. You could also try keeping a stress diary to keep track of situations, thought patterns, and people that routinely stress you out. The more aware you are of things that cause you stress, the better you’ll be at cutting them out or managing them if they’re unavoidable.
8. Take a look at your job
Work is a common source of stress. To make sure it doesn’t overwhelm you, take a step back from time to time to make sure it’s adding to your life rather than draining you. If you’re feeling unfulfilled or like each day is like a neverending treadmill, you could be on the road to burnout.
Perform a job analysis to clarify what’s expected of you, then book a meeting with your manager so you can talk about your goals and workload and delegate tasks that aren’t important to your role. If you think you’re being assigned more work than is fair or healthy, come to the meeting prepared with solutions and a constructive mindset.
It’s also important to assess your stressors during the day. If your attention is pulled in too many directions, or you’re struggling to focus, consider switching off your email for blocks of time throughout the day. If you’re using a chat app like Slack, set your status to ‘busy’ so your colleagues know to give you some space and not pester you for a reply.
Occasional exhaustion and anxiety are a normal part of life. But when they become the norm in your life, that’s when you need to stop and pay attention. Exposure to chronic stress can lead to burnout if you allow the situation to continue. However, getting enough sleep, taking time out for hobbies, taking care of your body, and learning how to avoid burnout could help you avoid reaching this point. Even if you’re looking after a sick relative or working long hours in a high-pressure job.
Make self-care an integral part of your life, and be sure to get enough ‘you time’ at home and work so you’re both rested and fulfilled. Doing this over the long term can stop stress from snowballing into something more serious.