Burnout is emotional exhaustion with a severely diminished interest in activities which used to entice or captivate you. Most of the time ‘burnout’ is work-related. Nonetheless, burnout can be personal, resulting from health, personal relationships, etc. Companies desire healthy productive workers and want to prevent burnout from happening in their workplaces. We, as individuals, should have the same objectives – a healthy and productive life.
What are some of the symptoms of burnout? How can you tell you might be ‘running on empty’? You perceive every day as a bad day. The boss doesn’t like you. Your peers aren’t interested in you. You do not feel emotionally connected to what you are doing. You believe you are unappreciated in all aspects of your life – work, family, and friends.
You suspect that there is an obvious detachment between your own personal values and what is expected of you. All your goals appear as if they are unrealistic or unreasonable. There is no fulfillment in what you do. You have no happiness or satisfaction in what you are doing. You suffer from exhaustion regularly.
Management, coworkers, family members, friends can see distinct phases people go through with burnout. Some of the more obvious phases are an obsession to prove yourself, personal conflict with no obvious reason, depression, degraded behavioral interfaces with others, bouts of working longer hours and a sense of working harder than needed, withdrawal, substance abuse, denial, conflicts, mental collapse, etc.
Not everyone experiencing burnout will have every one of the symptoms listed above, but they will have several. Burnout is not the same as depression. Depression is usually diagnosed when a person has five or more of the following symptoms for a period of at least two weeks: feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, pessimistic, eating and sleeping disorders, agitated, irritable, difficulty concentrating, self-hate, inappropriate guilt, weight gain or loss, thoughts of death or suicide. Depressed people tend to be evaluated as angry and discouraged. Burnout is usually seen as hopelessness and helplessness.
So, how can burnout happen? It usually starts when you become overloaded and cannot handle the stress. Most of us have too many meetings, too little time, too little recognition for what we really do, but we handle it. When distractions become crippling to your emotional base, you begin to drift into burnout. How many times have you told someone that you were running on empty? But, a night or two of good sleep and you are back in there fighting again.
Burnout fundamentally results from a lack of balance in one’s life – a lack of equilibrium and stability. Just like when you lose your balance riding a bicycle, you fall over. Most of us can get back up again and keep going. In burnout, we find it extremely difficult to get back up. Larger companies have employee assistance programs in place to assist with stress and work-related anxieties. They provide counseling, training and other services to help employees get through that phases of whatever problems they are going through.
Individually, we have access to these kinds of stress management programs and counselors, but we typically don’t see a need for them. And that is the biggest problem when you are depressed or experiencing burnout – you can’t see what is wrong. You can feel it, but you can’t see it.
In order to cope and recover, you need to identify what is causing the stress in your life, rebalance your life, realign your personal goals and values, reassess the criticality of your metrics in life – how you measure your work success and failure.
After you realize that you are approaching burnout, or in the middle of burnout, you should consider a few options. Stop and slow down – smell the roses, so to speak. Use some vacation or sick time to cut down on the work stressors. Talk to someone you trust – minister, priest, family member, mentor, former boss, etc.
Reset the boundaries of your work life and your family life – how many hours are you spending in each – and, what kinds of family activities should you be doing. Include an extra couple of hours of sleep every night – good quality sleep, not sleep imposed by drugs, meds or alcohol. Set a daily routine that is realistic and controllable.
In summary, recognize that you may be approaching burnout and do something before you get mired in emotional turmoil. Start reversing the damage done by stress. Seek counsel and support from those you trust. Work on those activities that build your immune system, improve your physical stamina, enhance emotional health and balance your life.