Burnout. It is a condition that for many sounds as akin to hypochondria: perhaps a mechanism in a made-for-TV movie or an excuse trotted out when a colleague misses a deliverable.
But the reality is, it does exist. It is a true mental condition that comes from unresolved and unending stress. It may more likely be from work, but it can also arise from living in an unbearable situation, where you lack support and positive feedback. Or, as a student, have taken on too many commitments.
At some point, something has to give. And more than likely, it is one’s motivation to accomplish tasks and work towards goals.
What is Burnout?
A key symptom is an overall feeling of exhaustion. But this is not the exhaustion that, after a good night’s sleep, is gone. Rather, this is more an emotional feeling of being overwhelmed coupled with anxiety that there are no signs that an end is in sight.
Burnout can manifest in a variety of ways. It can be accompanied by nervous ailments like a tick. It could have flare-up as stomach pains or a backache, or an excruciating headache. It can also be accompanied by the inability to concentrate, follow conversations, and explain one’s self.
As documented by Winona State University – Minnesota, as with any other form of illness, burnout proceeds in stages and can vary from person to person. The common stages are:
- Honeymoon Stage – where one is highly motivated and satisfied by the situation; it is at this point that one either develops coping mechanisms for the stress, or can take the route to burnout
- Balancing Act Stage – the optimism of the Honeymoon gives way as one becomes aware that there are up and down days. One finds that some days are: dissatisfying, might feel like there is inefficiency and avoidance, fatigue sets in, one’s sleep is inconsistent, and lastly, one looks to escape the work.
- Chronic Symptom Stage – the indicators for Balancing Act stage mount: there is chronic exhaustion, genuine physical symptoms, and more so, depression and irritability
- Crisis Point Stage – the chronic symptom now becomes critical; physical symptoms grow acute, self-doubt pervades one’s day as work or the situation itself, becomes overwhelmingly frustrating; one grows pessimistic and looks for an escape.
- Enmeshment Stage – at this point, one is so overwhelmed that one is unable to physically operate.
There are numerous strategies for avoiding burnout. Among the key ideas are to:
- Identify what are your stressors
- Manage and reduce your commitments
- Avoid or remove negative influence
- Therapy which might be pharmacological or meditative
- Remove yourself from the situation.
Being able to identify the key triggers, even if they cannot be dampened, is a start. These might come to mind easily, but they can also be subtle. Sometimes, one’s triggers are not immediately clear, but by looking at one’s reactions, one might notice a causal link.
One situation might arise, for example, through a subconscious feeling of being bullied as a result of suffering a toxic work environment. It might be that one is subject to a threat that is veiled in sweet requests, like could you be a bit more helpful or, never mind, I can see it’s beyond you, I’ll do it myself.
It could be that one, in a desire to be liked or fears not being valued, one over-commits. In fact, one can develop a reputation for accepting responsibility, and become the go-to person for all related matters. In this way, one becomes trapped.
If it is possible, one can implement a policy of just saying no! This can reduce piling on more commitment. If still over-committed, one should triage whatever one can. By triage, one decides how to allocate limited resources and effectively consciously decides to let some things lapse or die.
This can be difficult, especially if one is emotionally tied to promises made. But, one needs to be honest with one’s self. If there are physically not enough hours in the day, then something has to give. Better not to deliver a couple of things than fail on everything because one becomes incapacitated.
Medication can help in some situations, but such is more likely to mask the symptoms and not treat the root cause(s) of the stress that will cause one to burn out. Moreover, medication in itself can lead to further stress as well as having the potential for addiction.
For some, looking towards meditation and trying to be in the moment helps. Changing the way one looks at life, commitments, and focusing not on the future, but the immediate moment can reduce the stressors in one’s life.
Removing oneself self from the situation is another option. Burning out does this naturally as one is unable to function. However, recognizing that one is overwrought and consciously stepping away allows one to manage the outcome. If one has over-committed as a strategy to make oneself valued, then one needs to ensure that one does not feel lonely as a result.
Nothing New And Yet a Modern Scourge
Burn out is as old as the hills. It is only our more enlightened age that has acknowledged its existence. Much as being shell-shocked was once considered a sign of cowardice, today post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a bona fide illness, and is not only attributed to soldiers but applicable to the wider world.
Compared to the past, survival today brings with it new demands. While life was much simpler 100 years ago (there was less to own, breakdown, pay for), expectations, coping mechanisms, and an understanding of one’s psyche were also less advanced. The education offered lags behind the stresses of modern living. As such, there is a slowness in recognizing the signs that one is suffering from over-commitment or being in a toxic situation.
To operate in the current age, one cannot apply the insufficient coping mechanisms of yesterday. One needs to more frequently reassess promises and prioritize what can and cannot be delivered. Being in the moment, noticing the signs of being over-stressed and acting out, can catch one before burnout is inevitable.