It’s official: Burnout is real

The message that we can work harder and be better at everything can leave us feeling like work controls us rather than we control work. And that's not good for your resilience.
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It’s official – The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis describing it as ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” If you find yourself asking, “am I close to burnout?” these are three signs that you probably are:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced personal efficacy

Do any of these signs of burnout sound familiar? Do you recognise them in anyone around you? Are you starting to feel less resilient than you used to be? 

Organisations may argue that burnout as a term provides an ideal excuse for stress, laziness and underperformance in the workplace. Perhaps this need for ‘burnout’ recognition within the medical community reflects the harsher effects of harmful cultural norms.  

Whether we like it or not, symptoms of burnout exist, affecting organisational performance on many levels

A 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that more than 65% reported feeling burned out at work on some level.

Another survey by Kronos found that 95% of human resource executives think that burnout is responsible for between 20-50% of their annual workforce turnover.

And we shouldn’t forget this quote that highlights the pressure on leaders.

Leadership is an active role; 'lead' is a verb. But the leader who tries to do it all is headed for burnout, and in a powerful hurry.

Burnout typically begins with mental and physical sluggishness and listlessness and lack of enthusiasm for even the most routine of tasks, as finding the energy and focus at work becomes increasingly difficult. Then when you try to relax, you obsessively check email or run through a to-do list, hoping ‘relief’ will be just around the corner. Alongside this state of exhaustion and disengagement comes feelings of anxiousness, sadness, sad, or hopelessness.

So why are we feeling so exhausted?

Our brains and biology are simply not designed to deal with modern-day life. For example; going back to our grandparent’s generation, we typically had a job for life, a partner at home looking after the house and children and got our news once a day from the daily newspaper. As industry, technology and demanding home life has evolved, our 24/7 culture makes it difficult to switch off with little opportunity to recharge our batteries, leaving us running on low. 

At work, the relentless pace and increasing emphasis on productivity can leave even the most energetic performers in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight.’ From an evolutionary perspective, this constant hyper-state state enabled us to remain vigilant against predators to ensure survival and based on the short-term biological response to a threat. Today’s reality means many of us now perceive this same pressure to perform day in and day out, producing a steady surge of stress hormones that leave us struggling on survival mode with little capacity for thriving.

So, we are all doomed to burnout, right?

Wrong. There are proven ways to not only manage burnout but to build quality of life and energy for wellbeing and high-performance at work. We call it resilience.

In today’s fast-paced environment, we are all expected to do more with less, and companies place relative value on technical training to drive productivity. The irony is that humans are not machines powered by electricity that enables us to perform, whether we realise it or not, the extent to which we can function, deliver and thrive depends on leveraging four types of energy that are crucial to avoiding burnout.

  1. Physical
  2. Mental 
  3. Emotional and 
  4. Social energy

We are less likely to burn out if we support and maintain a steady, healthy flow of energy—without forcing it beyond its limits—and resilience skills and techniques enable us to do that.

Physical Energy - How Healthy Are You?

Do you come to work still recovering from sickness? Do you keep re-scheduling that doctor’s appointment? We are all guilty of neglecting our physical health but rarely stop to think about what it costs us. The reality is that without sufficient physical energy, how do we expect to focus and perform? 

Mental Energy - How Well Do You Focus On A Task?

Can you concentrate for long periods?

Our capacity to remain focused and productive relies on our ability to build and leverage our mental energy. Without sufficient mental energy, how can we expect to complete complex tasks, or solve problems objectively and creatively?

Most of us have to-do lists that never seem to end. As a result, we tend to focus on the stuff we haven’t done, which can leave us feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Many people view multitasking as a necessity in the face of all the demands they juggle, but it undermines productivity.

Emotional Energy

How can we expect to think accurately in challenging times if we are emotionally exhausted?

Our capacity to manage stress and regulate our emotions and behaviours relies on our ability to build and leverage our emotional energy. Our emotional energy is how we maintain good relationships with others and helps us think more clearly, logically and reflectively. 

For most of us, evenly dividing our time and energy between work and home is unrealistic—but that doesn’t stop us from trying. This tension is fuelled by an unrealistic belief of how the world should be. The beliefs turn into unrealistic expectations of ourselves in what we can reasonably accomplish, which creates stress and drains our motivation.

Social Energy

We all need social energy. Building social energy with those we spend time with every day creates trust and a network to call on to generate new ways to solve problems. If you are continuously working and not investing in your relationships, you are not only impacting your health but your performance too.

Resilience as a key enabler of avoiding burnout

Today’s health and wellbeing industries commonly focus on maintaining physical health by promoting lifestyle changes that typically involve gym memberships or dietary advice. Making such changes often requires a fundamental change in our already hectic daily routines and are the first thing to go when burnout sets in. While building our physical health is a good thing, it’s only one piece of the burnout puzzle. Likewise, practising yoga or mindfulness techniques are a great way to physically strengthen and relax but offer little practical application on the office floor or when time-poor.  

Our ability to function, deliver and thrive depends on how resilient we are at leveraging all four types of energy. The reality is that a change in behaviour involves a change in our thinking, a change in perspective and a skill-based process in which we can begin to build our resilience from the inside out. A renewed focus on our abilities to move forward confidently and productively that doesn’t compromise but boosts our energy levels to live the life we want to lead.

If you are reading this and have spotted the signs of burnout, it’s probably time for you to take a step back and invest in building on your personal resilience.