Sleepwalking into Burnout
Wake up and pay attention…
Lately there have been many changes across the board in my life that have left me feeling a bit flat and demotivated. Tasks that I used to find straight forward now seem to take a huge amount of effort to even get started.
I started think that it was down to the weather or being a bit run down, but this has gone on for weeks. Yes I get things done, but there was no feeling there; in effect I was just going through the motions.
As time went on I felt that things were getting serious and started to investigate whether I was burnt out.
Modern lifestyle and work habits are known stressors that if left unchecked can have a negative impact on our ability to cope with daily challenges. We can feel overwhelmed with the amount of tasks and responsibilities that we have to face.
An issue that during the course of my investigation that repeatedly came up was that stressful situations like these can lead to the feeling that we have no control over what is happening to us. It can seem that no matter how hard we try our efforts don’t seem to make a substantial difference to our perception of how much progress that we are making.
Feeling as if we are not making any real substantial progress can affect our self worth and may trigger feelings of depression, demotivation, low self esteem and a lack of optimism. Not exactly the fuel for contentment and improved self worth!
Tell Tale Signs
It appears that the longer these feelings are not kept in check the worse they become. It is amazing how many of the symptoms are very similar to not getting enough good quality sleep (and I’m sure there’s a link there, but that’s for another time).
Burnout is quite different and in some ways is the opposite end of the spectrum – while a person responds too much when they are stressed, burnout is too little. Burnout can often develop if a person has been under stress for a prolonged period and is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It is a sense of powerlessness and people may feel there is nothing they can do about their situation or that there is maybe no point. Some people describe burnout as being an upstream depression (some similar symptoms).source: Stress and Burnout, Stress and Burnout
I found a lot of good information about what burnout is after the fact, but what are the specific symptoms that I should be looking for to see if I indeed was suffering from burnout ? I narrowed it down to the following:
- Exhaustion – Engaging in pointless and/or non beneficial tasks can make you feel exhausted.
- Indifference – Not having much feeling or caring about the activities that you undertake ( and this can also include indifference to people related to the activity too).
- Reduced Productivity – Whether personal or career based, a lack of pride in what you are doing and/or reduced self esteem.
It may also help you to know the risk factors that may lead to burnout so that you can take steps to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.
Individual Risk Factors
- Having poor self-esteem
- Maladaptive coping mechanisms
- Younger adults with an idealistic worldview
- Unrealistically high expectations
- Having financial issues
Organisational Risk Factors
- Heavy workloads
- Conflicts with coworkers
- Diminished resources
- Lack of control or input
- Effort-reward imbalance
- Rapid institutional changes
A lot of the research papers and websites that I’ve read through suggest that you should “change your response to events/situations, which will make us feel better”, which while working for some, is easier said than done for me (although I have tried in the past , it is an ongoing process).
Seeking counselling is also another approach which can be very beneficial, especially if you suspect that you’ve been suffering from burnout for a while (it helps to talk).
I’ve found what’s been useful for me is to sleep better and exercise. Again, it seems to be the simplest thing to do and I get the rewards a lot quicker. During this period of feeling burnt out, I found that I wasn’t as physically active as I have been, and in particular not exercising as much after work (I prefer to exercise in the morning). It turns out that by doing some sort of physical activity in the evening, you reduce the chances of suffering from burnout!
The key finding of the present study is that among employees with high stress levels, those who engage in more leisure-time physical activity report lower burnout symptoms than their less active counterparts. This finding suggests that physical activity could be more than a simple pastime; it could also have the potential to help people to cope successfully with the stress experienced at work.Gerber, M., Schilling, R., Colledge, F., Ludyga, S., Pühse, U., & Brand, S. (2020). More Than a Simple Pastime? The Potential of Physical Activity to Moderate the Relationship Between Occupational Stress and Burnout Symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(1), 53-64.
So did I change what I was doing and exercise more? Yes. And was I burnt out? I don’t think so. Although I learnt a lot more about work related stress, I also understood my life related stressors better and made changes accordingly.
For me exercise and sleep helped get me back on track, and although they are basic priorities that everyone should be mindful of (which I usually am), I let them slide and didn’t notice until it started to affect my general attitude towards life, family and work.
“Low levels of leisure-time physical activity are associated with more burnout symptoms and more perceived occupational stress. Most importantly, the relationship between physical activity and burnout symptoms is especially strong among participants who perceive high occupational stress.”Gerber, M., Schilling, R., Colledge, F., Ludyga, S., Pühse, U., & Brand, S. (2020). More Than a Simple Pastime? The Potential of Physical Activity to Moderate the Relationship Between Occupational Stress and Burnout Symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(1), 53-64.