How to spot Burnout and take action

If constant stress leaves you feeling exhausted, distant and disillusioned, you are probably heading to burnout. Learn how to regain your energy and feel connected and hopeful again.

Stress is a fact of professional life. Heavy workloads and pressure in an environment of change and demand can overwhelm anyone. But when that stress is continually stretching you thin and left unmanaged, it can develop into a severe problem called burnout. It’s a problem that affects you both on the job and off across your health, productivity and relationships. And burnout is on the rise.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress. Until recently, there hasn’t been a fixed definition so we like that  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.” 

Burnout saps your energy, reduces productivity and negatively affects your relationship with yourself, others and your overall health. Because it can spill into every area of life with many negative consequences, it’s essential to tackle burnout quickly. 

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

Most of us have days when we feel exhausted, unappreciated and disengaged with tasks that feel mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming. You may be burning out if you feel like that most of the time.

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 your job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
  3. Reduced personal efficacy

Burnout is a gradual process that creeps up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first and then become more severe as time passes. Recognising the signs early on and actively reducing stress can prevent major disruption to your life and work. Ignore them at your peril.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Frequent head or muscle aches
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating habits 
  • Frequent illness 
  • Low immune system

Behavioural signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Reduced performance and productivity
  • Withdrawal from tasks and responsibilities
  • Social isolation 
  • Procrastination 
  • Frustration with others
  • Taking out your frustration on others
  • Taking days off and avoiding work 
  • Using food to cope 
  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope 

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Loss of purpose 
  • Detachment 
  • Negative attitude towards others 
  • Low commitment to your role 
  • Emotional numbness
  • Self-doubt 
  • Loss of motivation 
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment 
  • Feeling trapped, defeated and helpless.
  • Feeling like a failure.

Is it burnout or stress?

Unrelenting and excessive stress may result in burnout, but burnout isn’t the same as too much stress. We encourage people to think of stress as a feeling of “too much”, whereas burnout is “not enough”.

Stress causes you to over-engage with your work, display urgency and makes emotions overreactive.

In contrast, someone experiencing stress to the point of burnout disengages, shows a lack of productivity and emotions feel dull and blunted.

Everyone has a unique experience; however, researchers have identified three main types: 

1- Overload

The type of burnout most people are familiar with is often associated with volume: too much work and too much pressure. There is just too much work and not enough time as you move from back-to-back meetings with no time to stop.

2- Under challenge

It occurs when you feel trapped in a tedious, unchallenging job with little satisfaction. Because this can lead to finding no passion or enjoyment in work, people tend to cope by distancing themselves from their work, leading to cynicism, avoiding responsibility, and disengagement.

3- Neglect

Results from feeling professionally helpless; the feeling of incompetence creeps in, and the job demands feel unsurmountable. Neglect burnout can lead to passive and unmotivated behaviours.

What are the causes of burnout?

Burnout is generally related to your job, but anyone who feels undervalued and overworked is at risk, so we’d encouraged you to see “job” as a broad definition. For example, a stay-at-home parent or career can suffer from burnout.

It is also possible for burnout to affect someone experiencing stressors in their personal life, such as a breakup or coping with illness or loss.

Work-related causes

  • Lack of recognition 
  • Dealing with distressing material or situations 
  • Lacking autonomy in your work 
  • Working in a chaotic environment 
  • Working in a “bullsh*t” job 
  • Demanding job expectations
  • Unclear job expectations 
  • Experiencing unfairness
  • Discrimination 
  • Not sharing the values of your colleagues 

Lifestyle causes

  • Poor work-life balance 
  • Lack of supportive relationships 
  • Taking on too much 
  • Not getting enough sleep 

Personality traits can also contribute

  • Perfectionism
  • Overachieving 
  • Need to be in control 
  • Reluctance to delegate 
  • Pessimistic view of the world and yourself 

Diagnosing Burnout

Many tests are available to doctors to diagnose. We would not recommend you try and diagnose yourself or anyone else using the internet. Always seek professional medical advice.  

That said, here are some frequently used tools that can act as a ‘heads-up’:

  • Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)
  • Job Diagnostic Scale (JDS)
  • Utrecht Work Engagment Scale (UWES)

A 12-stage model of the stages of burnout can be found in another article on our website by clicking here.

Dealing With Burnout

There is no set treatment for dealing with burnout; many people have little choice but to leave their workplace, either temporarily or permanently. However, others find support and strategies to alter their work environment and attitudes to reduce the factors causing burnout.

Like many things relating to our health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so we suggest dealing with burnout before it becomes an issue with the “Three R’s” approach:

Recognise: be on the lookout for the warning signs. This article will help you do that in both yourself and others.

Reverse: Undo the damage with support and managing stress. 

Resilience: Build your resilience to stress by learning mental, emotional and social skills that help you positively adapt to change. 

The key is to take action. Here are a few ideas to get started:

Burnout and stress

Cover the basics

Get nutrition, sleep and exercise and make time for an activity you find relaxing. You know, the self-care that tends to go out of the window when we get stressed. If you are having trouble making time, give yourself a week to assess how you spend your time. Record what you are doing, with whom, how you feel about it and how valuable the activity is. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 equals drained and pointless and 10 is energised and valued. Doing this takes a little effort, although it will help you find opportunities to limit exposure to situations that aren’t essential and promote a negative mood.

Once you’ve identified the drainers, increase your time and investment in those activities you’ve identified to boost your mood and energy.

Be Social

Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress. Talking to a great listener is one of the fastest solutions to relieving stress. I know it’s challenging to muster up the energy when things look too big and unsurmountable but connecting with others can be a quick route to balance.

And it’s not just family and friends outside work; building friendships at work can directly buffer stress. For example, don’t go straight to your phone when you take a break or arrange social events after work.

Reduce your job stressors

Changes at the job, team or organisational level are often required. Discuss your concerns with a line manager and try being specific about the elements of your role that need to change. Perhaps you can work together to adjust priorities and reach compromises? Maybe some things can wait whilst you focus on what needs doing.

You may have to reset the expectations of the people around you and set new ground rules. You may even get pushback. Just be clear that you are making these changes to improve your health and long-term productivity. Saying no will feel hard. Suppose you find no opportunities to shift things in a positive direction. In that case, you will probably need to contemplate a more significant change.

Burnout can often feel all-consuming, never-ending and insurmountable.

Remember that it’s a signal, not a long-term sentence. By understanding the symptoms and causes and taking action, you can recover and build resilience for prevention in the future. If you’d like help in doing that, book a discovery call with one of our coaches, who can talk to you about building your resilience.

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