Are you snippy and irritable? Do you procrastinate on things that are important? Has complete exhaustion and disillusionment overtaken your life? Is every day a bad day, with seemingly insurmountable problems?
Then you may be on the road to burnout, a serious obstacle to well-being. Burnout is caused by excessive and prolonged stress—it’s stress multiplied. As the following table shows, stress produces a sense of overload, whereas burnout produces a sense of emptiness.
|Stress vs. Burnout|
|Characterized by over-engagement||Characterized by disengagement|
|Emotions are over-reactive||Emotions are blunted|
|Produces urgency and hyperactivity||Produces helplessness and hopelessness|
|Loss of energy||Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope|
|Leads to anxiety disorders||Leads to detachment and depression|
|Primary damage is physical||Primary damage is emotional|
|May kill you prematurely||May make life seem not worth living|
|Source: Stress and Burnout in Ministry|
Burnout can emerge gradually from insufficient sleep and relaxation, or from drowning in stress. It’s best to address the triggers before they reach a breaking point.
Parents of newborn babies and people taking care of elderly or ill relatives often put in too many hours without respite. The same thing can happen when you stay up late studying for exams, juggle a second job or aspirational career, or even partying late into the night. Over time the lack of sleep saps motivation and caring, sometimes to the point of being hazardous.
Many studies—from Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine to citations in the Sleep Health Solutions and WebMD blogs—have proven the negative effects of sleep-deprivation. These include decreased alertness, cognitive impairment, and numerous health problems. Extreme long-term sleep-deprivation, such as techniques used by the CIA, can cause hallucinations and memory lapses, and (in extreme cases) even death.
It’s important to take time for oneself. People who are selfless may not realize they reduce their ability to help others if they don’t take care of themselves. As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” When you need a break, get assistance. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of wisdom. Unfortunately, sometimes ego gets in the way and we refuse to ask for help.
I was a working mother. I know how draining it can be trying to get everything done. I used to do my book writing in the middle of the night while my kids and husband were sleeping and the house was quiet. Then I would catch a few hours of sleep before the alarms went off to start a new day. At the same time my mother was staying with me after her cancer surgery. (She had a third of her stomach removed.) There were times I went into work with mismatched clothes and spit-up on my shoulder. I was fortunate to have a husband willing to help. But I wanted to be the person who could do it all. And too often, I didn’t ask for help when I should have. (So much for wisdom.)
Later in life I cared for elderly relatives for years. But by then I was wiser. Getting Companion-Care and Meals-on-Wheels allowed some time for me to be me.
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. And it’s not always bad. In business, some amount of stress can be beneficial. It can motivate people toward objectives and quotas, or toward a specific level of performance. And I suspect all businesses (and lives) have recurring stress at points in time. The issue is how long, how frequent, and how intense those periods are.
When you’re feeling symptoms of “normal” stress, you can apply “normal” stress-reduction tools. Meditation. Deep Breathing. Mindfulness. Exercise. Social relaxation.
But when stress starts creeping toward burnout, life changes may be necessary. That’s when you feel ready to snap, in a rut, hopeless, and you don’t know what to do about it. I’ve experienced early-stage burnout a few times in my life. I realized I needed a strategy. Here’s what I learned.
Start at the beginning. Take an inventory of your stressors. It’s a proactive step that’s within your control. Since burnout is the cascading of many stress triggers, identifying the worst offenders jumpstarts the prioritization. According to Marlynn Wei M.D., J.D., “stress accounts for over 60% to 80% of medical visits to the primary care doctor.” Just remember that pharmaceuticals are usually NOT the answer.
Try to rediscover your passion. Read books like Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose Itby Marshall Goldsmith; What Color is Your Parachute by Richard N. Bolles; and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Are you in the right job, the right occupation, the right company? If you’re not sure, rethink your definition of success. Is your success self-directed or other-directed? By that I mean are you pursuing a goal because you want it, or because you want others to see you achieving it? Be true to yourself and don’t fear a pivot. Scary though it may be, change can be a good thing. Even a great thing, if it leads to less burnout and more satisfaction in life. The earlier you can pivot, the more likely you can avoid full-blown burnout. Build on small wins. Avoid negativity.
Talk to others. Find people who are good listeners, especially if they have experienced what you’re going through. If you don’t have friends or relatives who can help, look for support groups at a local clinic or online.
Elevate your stress-reduction techniques. Yoga, meditation, exercise, sleep and other self-help techniques are still relevant—even more so. Keep testing techniques until you find one or more that work for you. Then build them into your daily life.
Burnout doesn’t have to be terminal. It can be reversed. And the sooner you can curb it, the happier and more fulfilling your life will be.
Save Yourself from Burnout by Loomis and Genly
Burnout Prevention and Treatment, by Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, M.A. June 2019, HelpGuide
10 Strategies to Fight Job Burnout, Marlynn Wei M.D., J.D., May 25, 2016 , Psychology Today