Are you on the road to burnout?

If you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralised and exhausted, it is best for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself…”

Dalai Lama

It has been 2.5 years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit on a catastrophic global scale in March 2020. Aside from the immense devastation it caused, the pandemic brought along with it huge levels of stress and pressure to all domains of life. Now more than ever the lines between work and home life have become increasingly blurred, with a sense of little or no escape from any work or home related stress. So it’s no surprise that over the last couple of years more and more people have become mentally and physically exhausted from their jobs.

So, what is burnout?

The term burnout was coined in the 1970’s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Freudenberger defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

In 2019, even before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon and has included it in the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The WHO has classified “Burnout” as a syndrome (a group of signs and symptoms) resulting from chronic workplace stress which has not been successfully managed. It is important to note that it is NOT classified as a medical diagnosis or more specifically a mental illness.

According to the WHO, burnout is characterised by 3 main features:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Fatigue - initially you may experience feeling increasingly tired most days and lethargic. Over time you may become both physically and mentally exhausted.

Insomnia - you may struggle to fall asleep or have a broken sleep pattern despite your increasing levels of exhaustion, it can become even more difficult to sleep.

Forgetfulness / lack of concentration – initially, you may struggle to focus on tasks, or experience some forgetfulness. Later on your work becomes unmanageable and you find everything beginning to pile up.

More prone to illness – as your body’s natural resources become depleted, you may find your immune system weakens making you more prone to illnesses such as colds or flu-like symptoms.

Loss of appetite – you may find your hunger levels drop as a result of feeling stressed however, this can lead to a complete loss of your appetite altogether which can then lead to noticeable weight loss.

Physical symptoms – you may find yourself feeling short of breath, or even experiencing chest pains. You may experience palpitations, dizziness, headaches and even stomach problems such as bloating and diarrhoea. You may also experience aches and pain in the body generally.

High blood pressure - you may develop this as a result of chronic stress.

Anxiety – you may initially feel tense and find yourself worrying or having negative thoughts. The longer this continues, the increased chances of you developing burnout. You may get to a point where you start to fear or dread going to work or facing the day.

Depression – at first you may experience feelings of sadness and possibly hopelessness. You may have feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result of missing deadlines for example. As time goes by you may feel shame, trapped and severely depressed. At its worst you may feel that everyone would be better off without you.

Anger – you may initially feel irritable and frustrated. This may turn into resentment and lead to angry outbursts. This may impact your relationships, with arguments at home and feeling that no-one actually appreciates you for anything that you do.

Isolation – as your anxiety, depression and even anger intensifies you may feel that you just want to avoid everyone as you feel too frustrated and too busy to form and maintain friendships. Ultimately you may find yourself spending more time alone and becoming socially isolated.

The 5 stages of burnout

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, it can often creep up on you so you may not recognise it until it’s too late. Understanding the symptoms and signs is important but by also understanding how these can progress, it should be easier for you to anticipate and arm yourself with the tools to prevent burnout or deal with it sooner.

Stage 1 - Honeymoon Phase:

You may have started a new job or a new project at work and you’re excited about it. You’re full of optimism and energy and so it’s easy to stretch yourself early on. You are eager to prove yourself, take on more work, and your productivity is through the roof! You may notice potential stressors related to work or projects but you soldier on regardless because you are committed to the job at hand.

Stage 2 - Onset of Stress:

Things are still going reasonably well but you may start to notice certain situations are causing you stress. Some days you feel anxious before work or when you meet certain work colleagues. Your enthusiasm for the new job or project is waning. You may start to feel less motivated and tiredness may start to creep in.

Stage 3 - Chronic Stress Phase:

Now the stress is getting critical and every day at work feels overwhelming and just thinking about it makes you anxious, irritated, or angry (or all 3). You are tired all the time, you are spending little to no time with friends or family, your sleep is restless and not restorative at all, so every morning you wake up feeling tired. You start to get really cynical about everything, especially work and all work satisfaction is gone. You may also start showing up to work late because you just can’t face going or have increased sick days because you feel so empty and run down and you keep getting sick.

Stage 4 - Burnout:

Entering stage four is burnout itself, where symptoms become critical. You may have abandoned your self-care and personal needs. This phase is usually where results take the biggest hit. Your employer might notice that your work isn’t up to scratch in this phase as you hit your limit, leading to even more stress and pressure on your plate, causing a vicious cycle.

Stage 5 - Habitual Burnout

This is where things become extremely unpleasant and unsustainable for you. Physical and mental fatigue begin to blur together and you find yourself running on autopilot. The consequences once you hit this stage can be crippling. You’re now at serious risk of depression, physical illness, and significant daily anxiety.

How to prevent and treat burnout?

1. Work with purpose

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of viewing your career as a means of earning money to pay the bills, put a roof over your head, feed and clothe you. Have you taken time to consider the deeper purpose of the work you do? Rediscovering your purpose can go a long way towards helping you avoid burnout and keeping stress at bay. So if you have lost sight of this then look at the deeper impact of what you do every day; how does your work positively impact others? How could you add more meaning to what you do every day?

2. Practice Mindfulness

Five Senses Exercise - this is a simple exercise you can practice. It helps you get more aware and mindful, no matter where you are and can be completed in a couple of minutes.. Practise this anytime you feel stressed and need to focus on your well-being. Breathe calmly and focus on how your body gets lighter.

Explore your senses:

Notice 5 things that you can see - pick out things you typically do not notice

Notice 4 things that you can feel - explore the textures and the temperature

Notice 3 things that you can hear - try to pick up things you typically filter out

Notice 2 things that you can smell

Notice 1 thing that you can taste

Then take a moment to reflect on how you felt before the exercise and how you’re feeling after.

3. Breathwork

4-7-8 Breathing Technique - this is another simple technique that can be used to relax you when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Find somewhere comfortable to sit. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 7 seconds then breath out through your mouth for 8 seconds. This technique can help to regulate your cortisol levels which is one of your stress hormones.

4. Identify your stressors

This will bring awareness to understanding what your triggers are. Only then can you take steps to either avoid those triggers, minimise your interactions with them or even explore ways to respond more effectively to them.

5. Journaling

This can be a really powerful exercise. It is an excellent way of decompressing any negative emotions you are experiencing. Simply put it is a way of recording your thoughts, feelings, triggers and upsetting events etc. By essentially dumping everything that’s ruminating in your brain onto paper can be very cathartic and is very effective at managing anxiety levels/ regulating your emotional levels, encouraging you to open up and express your emotions and can help you gain useful insights into why you’re feeling the way you are.

6. Build a support network

Discuss your struggles with burnout with a colleague you can trust, your manager, family member or close friend. Do not suffer in silence as you will be amazed how much people will want to help once you share with them your struggles.

7. Exercise

The benefits of exercise are multifold such as boosting your self-esteem, helping to reduce your anxiety levels, improving your sleep quality and energy levels not to mention the effects in lowering your risk of chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes to name a few.

8. Boundary Setting

How often have you said yes to something, or someone, and then immediately regretted it? It’s important to pay attention to your feelings as it’s your internal navigation system to tell you that something is not right. Take the time to think about your own needs first before automatically saying yes to requests. Learn to say no and be more purposeful with where you spend your time and energy. There’s only one of you and only so many hours in the day. Be consistent with how you respond and gradually people will learn that you are not a doormat and think twice before asking you for that next favour.

9. Embrace having some fun and play in your life

It is important to make time for the fun stuff. This is so important in helping you escape and switch off from the grind. Even if it’s just 1 hour a week, commit to doing something that will make you happy eg. a luxury bath, a walk in nature, a cinema trip, coffee with a friend etc. This is a great way to calibrate your stress levels.

10. Sleep Hygiene

  • Try to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening as it can take up to 10 hours for caffeine to completely clear your system.
  • Avoid consuming alcohol before bed as it disrupts your circadian rhythm, elevates your resting heart rate, and more. Try to give your body at least 3 hours before bed to metabolise the alcohol in your system.
  • Avoid a late night meal or snack as whilst your body clock is primed for sleep mode your digestive system will confuse matters by kicking into action to digest the food you’ve just consumed.
  • Limit your exposure to blue light produced by electronic devices and much of the indoor lighting as this tricks your brain into thinking it’s daylight and prevents production of melatonin which helps promote sleep.
  • Supplements that can help to boost your melatonin production include magnesium and 5HTP available from many health food shops.

11. Healthy Diet

Ensure you’re eating fresh, wholesome food which will help boost your immunity and make you less vulnerable to stress and fatigue and helps improve your sleep quality. Studies have shown a positive correlation between a healthy mediterranean diet and your mental health with a reduced risk of depression and reducing your sugar intake can reduce your anxiety levels.

12. Taking a break from work

This may be a necessary step for you if you give you the crucial space you need away from your work environment in order to give you the time to fully focus on your own health and well being. At the end of the day you cannot pour from an empty cup. Have the courage to be open with your employers about your struggles and seek help and support you need.

13. Seek support

Ask for external help if you need to. Consider seeing your GP to discuss your symptoms. You may find counselling or therapy of benefit.

Rapid Transformational Therapy is a powerful hybrid hypnotherapy tool that can help you in eliminating any negative behaviour patterns that may be deep rooted and replace these and wire in more empowering ways of being. This in addition to a program of coaching to provide you with a roadmap and tools to embed in your daily life could be life changing for you.