The Age of Burnout (How to Get Real Work Done Without Burning Out)

By Thomas Oppong

Burnout is a condition of our time.

The always-on expectations of the digital age is killing us.

Many people are consistently over-scheduled and overcommitted and they can’t seem to find a way out.

They feel it’s almost impossible to slow down.

Today, people are pushed beyond their limits to cope with life and living it.

A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.

That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job, according to the study.

Demanding careers practically guarantee burnout if you are not intentional about your choices and work habits.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.

“Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give,” writes HelpGuide.

Millions of people dread Sunday evenings and begin to feel physically ill commuting to the office on Monday morning.

It gets worse when they start thinking of the week ahead of them and how long it will take to make it to Friday.

They suffer from work-related stress.

The unfortunate news is that many employers don’t take burnout seriously, even though it’s making people worse at getting things done.

Neglected, burnout can affect every area of your life, with life-changing consequences.

People heading towards burnout might experience the following symptoms, say psychologists Rachel Andrew and Brian Rock:

• You feel exhausted, with no energy to do anything. You might experience disturbed sleep, and some flu-like symptoms.

• You have difficulties concentrating, and feel as if your mind is zoning out, going into a daze for hours on end.

• You feel irritated and frustrated, often becoming self-critical.

• Supermarkets and similar places begin to feel overwhelming — the lights are too bright and there is too much noise.

• You feel detached from things you used to love.

According to the WHO, “burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

In their recent handbook for recognised medical conditions, WHO reports that burnout is characterised by three dimensions:

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, or

3) Reduced professional efficacy

Burnout is not just synonymous to stress. It applies to experiences in other areas of life, WHO notes.

Not all burnouts are the same.

It’s easy to blame burnout on just workload. Everyone experiences burnout differently.

Overload, lack of development and neglect are the three different types of burnout, according to The Association for Psychological Science.

Each type requires a different solution.

1. Overload: The frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion, is most closely related to emotional venting. These individuals might try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work, feeling as though it imposes limits on their goals and ambitions. That coping strategy, unsurprisingly, seems to lead to a stress overload and a tendency to throw in the towel.

2. Lack of Development: Most closely associated with an avoidance coping strategy. These under-challenged workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, a strategy that leads to depersonalization and cynicism — a harbinger for burning out and packing up shop.

3. Neglect: Seems to stem from a coping strategy based on giving up in the face of stress. Even though these individuals want to achieve a certain goal, they lack the motivation to plow through barriers to get to it.

Each type of burnout can cripple your ability to function on a personal, social and professional level.

Burnout steals hope and destroys motivation. It, quite literally, sucks the life out of you over time.

People with burnout experience a complete lack of energy, and feeling of dread for what the day will bring. Those who are under-challenged can’t seem to find the motivation to move forward in their careers.

People with burnout often have trouble sleeping. Left untreated, they can develop chronic insomnia, which makes it even harder to concentrate and focus every working day.

Minor symptoms can become so severe over time that it becomes impossible to cope with the challenges and pleasures of life.

A minor burnout is like a pipe leak in your house that has been dripping for months or even years without repair. At some point, the pressure becomes too much that the pipe ruptures and that water comes bursting through the walls with devastating results.

Brian Rock, psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist describes burnout as, “a drip, drip, drip. Patients will say: ‘I didn’t know this was happening to me.’

“It’s like a mission creep of sorts, where you find yourself working a bit later, taking calls on weekends, being less inclined to play with your children or feeling more isolated and irritable,” he says.

Don’t take any sign of burnout lightly. It pays to find a fix as soon as possible.

The first step to finding a solution to burnout is to identify the type of burnout you are currently facing. It’s the best way to get better faster without wasting time on a strategy that may not work for you.

What works for overload burnout, or under-challenged burnout won’t work for those feel neglected.

If you’re under-challenged in your current career, talk to your superior to find better challenges and tasks that match your skills.

Say, “I’d love to pursue opportunities for growth within my role.”

Make a convincing argument for job enrichment to make the business grow.

In short, prove that you’re ready for more challenges and that you’ll be able to advance your boss’s goals.

Better still, you can start a passion project if your employer won’t help you. Find things to feel invested in outside of work.

The time before work and after work is golden, and it’s usually completely yours to schedule. Choose to spend some of that time on your passion project.

Give yourself permission to create something you deeply care about.

When you’re demoralised, it can be hard to care about much of anything, and starting a meaningful project can change your approach to work.

You can start by simply exploring your curiosities. Making time for self-reflection can shine a light on new interests you want to explore.

Everyone has a favourite activity to boost energy, it could be playing a musical instrument, drawing, writing, or some kind of sports.

Make time for your best activity that doesn’t feel like work.

“Making strides towards a goal, no matter how small, builds confidence and creates a flywheel of momentum that can lift you out of a funk,” says Melody Wilding of Quartz.

Once you have found what’s important to you, keep them permanently in your schedule. Think of them as a way of escape, or checkpoints.

If you feel overloaded (working towards success until exhaustion), the first thing to do is to recognise that you are burning out and want a way out.

Consistent heavy workloads and intense time pressures shouldn’t take over your life. Physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue can undermine your ability to work effectively.

Start prioritising self-care. Your brain needs downtime to effectively deliver what you expect of it.

Start accessing exactly how you’re spending your time.

Which tasks or relationships are draining you.

“This will help you find opportunities to limit your exposure to tasks, people, and situations that aren’t essential and put you in a negative mood; increase your investment in those that boost your energy; and make space for restful, positive time away from work,” says Monique Valcour of HBR.

Once you know the source of the overload, begin replenishing your physical and emotional energy, along with your capacity to focus.

You can successfully do that by prioritising good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social relationships.

Practices like meditating, journaling, and even enjoying nature can be life-changing.

The ugly truth is that rest, relaxation, and replenishment can ease exhaustion but won’t cure the root causes of burnout.

Heavy workload may still be waiting for you daily, so begin to change your perspective about getting things done.

Start reducing activities that trigger unhealthy stress.

Set limits on the time you spend on overwhelming tasks, notice when you are feeling overly tired and change your behaviour immediately.

You could also delegate or automate some of your tasks, to free up meaningful time and energy for other important work that won’t consistently drain you.

If you feel neglected and have given up in the face of stress, there is still hope.

One of the biggest challenges in meeting any goal, whether it be related work or personal growth is finding the motivation to stick with it, especially when you are stressed.

Where there is no will to continue anything, performance suffers. You become emotionally and mentally, drained.

The only way out is to change direction and start small.

Finding ways to regain a sense of control by creating a list of things to stop doing, and focus on the essentials that push you towards your goals.

Reduce your commitments. Learn to set better boundaries. And say no more often and take charge of your schedule.

Create a better routine with self-care in mind.

Once you’ve done that, start focusing on easy tasks to get your momentum back and then grow from there.

It sounds simple. But it works.

Burnout is not a long-term sentence, but it’s not. You are still capable of building a more sustainable career and a happier, healthier life.

You can recover by understanding your symptoms, causes and being more intentional about your next moves, both in the short and long term.

You can prevent — and reverse — burnout by changing how you work.

This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.

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