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Navigating Burnout


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Stress is a bad thing, right? Well, not always. We need a certain amount of stress to motivate us in life - and just the right amount will put us in the high performance zone. But too much stress leads to fatigue, ill health and, eventually, burnout. So, how can we see the warning signs and prevent that from happening?


Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, caused by working too hard for too long. It was first coined by psychologist, Herbert Freudenberge, in 1974, but feelings that would be associated with burnout date back to Shakespeare and even the Old Testament.


We often think of burnout in a work setting, but it can relate to other areas of our lives. For example, if you are a single parent or caring for a sick family member.


Stress is often worn as a badge of honour in our society, and high stress professions  like healthcare, social work, teaching, emergency services and corporate settings make us more vulnerable to burnout - especially if you have a perfectionist or overachiever personality. Sometimes, in childhood, we are praised for achievements such as good grades, and this affects our self worth as an adult. We feel we must work the hardest in order to be valued.


The Five Stages of Burnout are:

  1. The Honeymoon Stage - You are optimistic, committed and keen to take on more work.

  2. Onset of Stress - Optimism is waning and common signs of stress like a change in sleeping and eating patterns, and increased anxiety may occur. Your work is starting to take up more time than you would like.

  3. Chronic Stress - Frustration is rising and performance is decreasing. You start to feel overwhelmed and might look to coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, or procrastination. You might notice you snap at people easily.

  4. Burnout - This is a state of crippling exhaustion. You might be struggling with self doubt and become very pessimistic. You are totally neglecting your personal needs for the work.

  5. Habitual Burnout - Burnout has become a way of life. You are having significant mental, physical or emotional problems.


Burnout is not a mental illness but it is characterised by three specific symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism (or depersonalisation) and loss of efficacy. Unlike depression, burnout can be treated by taking a break from work to recharge your batteries. 


Here are some other ways to prevent and treat burnout:


Recognise the stages of burnout 

Now that you know the stages of burnout, it's important to act at the first signs. Learning how to say ‘No’ is an important life skill and there is a way to do it that isn’t career limiting.  Ask your manager to help prioritise your workload based on the amount of time you have. Be clear on what you can and cannot get done in that allocated time and adjust deadlines if necessary, or ask for additional support. If the answer/attitude is that all the work has to be done in an unreasonable amount of time, you might want to consider whether this is a  mentally healthy workplace and if it's worth your mental wellness to continue working there.


Practise consistent self care 

This is always the first thing to go when we are busy. We skip our workouts, go for fast food options, and look to alcohol or Netflix to relax. But this becomes a negative cycle when we lack the energy to take care of ourselves. By getting the basics right i.e. meal prepping, daily movement (even if it's just 10 minutes) and prioritising at least 7 hrs sleep, you’ve already charged your battery 80%. Add in another stress management tool you love like a beach/forest walk on the weekend, mediation, breathwork, journaling, seeing a friend or something else you know works for you, and your battery will stay fully charged for longer.


Strive for work/life balance

I know it's easier said than done sometimes but simple things like having boundaries, e.g. turning off your notifications, not checking emails at night, and saving emails for work hours only can make a big difference. Really reflect on what you want to get out of life. What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? That you didn’t spend much time with your family because you were always working?


Burnout costs the global economy US$500 billion a year, and the WHO said it would be a pandemic in 10 years. Put yourself first to avoid becoming a burnout statistic.

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