Burn FOR not OUT
Why Burnout is dangerous and how to prevent it
If you ever experienced burnout, you know that it’s more than being tired. You know that it’s a type of depression that makes it close to impossible to work.
What exactly is burnout?
The term “burnout” was first coined by Herbert Freudenberger, a psychologist that used it to describes the consequences of severe stress in helping professions such as doctors or nurses. (1)
Unfortunately, to this day, there is no clear definition of burnout. There’s a fine line between depression and burnout. However, experts agree that burnout results from stress at work or tasks such as caring for a family member.
The most common symptoms of burnout include:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion: people feel drained and unable to cope
- Mental distance work-related activities: people perceive their jobs as frustrating, increasingly stressful, or meaningless
- Reduced professional performance: people find it hard to concentrate, being creative, or efficient
While the WHO does not classify burnout as a medical condition, it can lead to severe physical problems such as insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, depression, or (back) pain.
What causes burnout?
Burnouts can be triggered by multiple factors. I cluster them as follows:
Lack of appreciation:
“Not every productive employee is appreciated, but every appreciated employee is productive.” Oleg Vishnepolsky
According to the German sociologist Johannes Siegrist, burnout can also be triggered by an imbalance of workload and the sense of being valued or acknowledged: over the course of 5 years, the risk of suffering from depression increases by 70% if an employee is continuously overstrained and not being sufficiently rewarded at the same time.
On the other hand, an honest “Thank You” or a “Well done” costs nothing and can make another person’s day.
Lack of meaning
The risk of burnout increases when people don’t experience their work as meaningful anymore.
If you don’t feel your daily work is connected to a greater goal or to something that you want to achieve with your life, it’s easier to become disengaged or frustrated.
Disengagement can then lead to decreased productivity and appreciation. And if you don’t feel valued, you might think that what you are doing is pointless. It’s a vicious circle.
Lack of physical and mental recovery
Many people love their jobs and feel valued but still get burned out. One reason for that can be a lack of physical recovery. I used to work as a management consultant. 12-hour days or working on the weekends were considered “normal.” While I was working long hours, I also forced myself to hit the gym at 5 am every weekday, and I spend my weekends training for a marathon in Stockholm. One day I “crashed.” I felt unable to get out of bed, and when I tried to check my emails, I could hardly read anything.
Our bodies AND minds need recovery: times where we reconnect with our physical and emotional needs. Human beings are not machines; we can’t function 24/7. Muscles don’ grow with adequate recovery, and great ideas are not always born under pressure.
Constant and chronic stress increases your cortisol levels. In healthy individuals, the concentration of this stress hormone is higher in the morning and then decreases during the day. This allows us to be alert in the morning and to sleep at night.
However, if the cortisol levels stay elevated due to chronic stress, it’s harder for us to relax and sleep at night.
That’s where another vicious circle starts: if you cannot sleep, your work performance is likely to drop. And as our society is not forgiving when it comes to decreased work performance, you will put more pressure on yourself. Competition is high, and the next candidate might be ready to take your job. Fear of losing your job creates additional stress. More stress, more cortisol, less sleep.
Lacking recovery, decreased performance, less appreciation, more frustration – it’s all connected.
How can you deal with burnout?
First, it’s important to understand if you’re “only” exhausted or already burned out. Exhausting usually decreases when you take some time off, allow mental and physical breaks, or — in the best case — take a little vacation. It can also be a good idea to check-in with your doctor if you’re suffering from any condition that decreases your energy, such as thyroid or liver disorders.
However, when you’re burned out, taking a vacation will not do the trick. You’ll have to dig deeper to understand the root causes and identify ways to address them.
You can use the above-mentioned burnout triggers as a starting point:
- Do you feel valued by your employer, clients, or colleagues?
- Does your family appreciate your efforts?
- Do YOU value what you’re doing?
- Are you proud of your job?
- Do you feel that your work makes a difference for others or for society
- Would you stay in your profession if you would get paid significantly less
- Would you still continue working if you’d win the lottery?
- Do you allow yourself to take sufficient breaks?
- Do you take time off to enjoy other things than work?
- Do you always feel stressed?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Do you take enough time for yourself, your hobbies, your friends, and your family?
- Do you take care of your physical and mental well-being?
Once you know the root cause of your burnout, you can start to identify the next steps.
To overcome burnout, I typically follow a mixed approach consisting of coping and resolving.
First, try to come up with some EASY and realistic ideas to improve your physical and mental condition. For example, you could engage in activities that reduce stress and cortisol levels. Being in nature, low-impact Yoga (no Power Yoga!), or short breathing mediations are evidence-based examples to decrease stress hormones and increase energy.
Improving energy levels will then make it easier to start resolving the underlying issues that have caused the burnout. You can do this by yourself or with the help of a friend, coach, or therapist.
When it comes to prioritizing the topics that you want to work on, understanding what’s meaningful to you might most effective. If you feel that you have a meaningful job, you’re less dependent on external appreciation.
However, if a lack of appreciation is the main trigger for your burnout, switching your work environment will be your game changer.
How can you prevent burnout?
Similar to the prevention of health conditions, regular check-ups are key to preventing burnout.
Take some time each month or quarter to reflect if you’re still finding meaning in your day-to-day work. Write down what you appreciate or don’t like about your current work environment. Listen to your body to understand if you need to take better care of yourself.
Here’re some ideas to make that “check-up” more fun and effective:
- Take some me-time and use it primarily to reflect your life. Go for a long walk or ride, avoid using any electronics or other distractions.
- Meet with a friend and discuss where you’re are in life and where you would like to be in 3 years from now. Friends can help us to put things in perspective and prevent us from having unrealistic expectations.
- Hire a coach. Discussing your life goals and your current situation with a professional sparring partner can be a valuable investment before making significant changes, such as quitting your job. He or she can help you develop and assess scenarios or provide you tools that you can use to create a roadmap or coping strategies depending on your situation.
Another way to prevent a lack of physical and mental recovery is to integrate stress-reducing techniques into your workday or week:
In good health,
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