Anxiety, physical pain, frequent illness, irritability, fatigue, sleeping issues, interpersonal conflicts, and family problems are just some of the symptoms associated with the burnout, but the list goes on and on. Since the palette of symptoms is so broad, it’s often difficult to grasp what burnout syndrome is all about.
What Is Burnout Syndrome?
The term was coined in the 1970s by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Today, we call it “syndrome” because its symptoms impact the person’s whole system: physical health, mental health, social and family relationships, productivity at work, etc.
On one hand, burnout is the final straw, the result of months or years of neglecting personal needs for the sake of investing ourselves in emotionally demanding situations. On the other hand, if left untreated, it’s the first step to more serious problems such as heart disease, depression, diabetes, and so on.
The burnout is very complex and deeply rooted in both individual psychology and company climate, but it also has to do with our society on a big scale. That’s why we say it’s a multidimensional problem, and it won’t be resolved solely by treating individuals. Social change is required, too.
Freudenberger defined burnout as a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.
A more recent, broader definition suggested by Maslach and Leiter defines burnout as a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.
These researchers point out that crucial dimensions of the burnout response are overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. The person’s stress is located in a social context, and the reaction spills over from the self to the environment and vice versa.
The list of burnout symptoms is pretty long. It encompasses a variety of reactions that depend on a myriad of factors, so there’s practically no way you’re “experiencing it wrongly”.
Some people cry at funerals, some laugh. Some people scream when they’re too tired, others goof around, make an excess, or become anxious and depressed.
The “warning symptoms” that occur long before the actual syndrome takes effect are increased commitment to goals; and exhaustion.
Overly committed individuals, perfectionists, those who are not sure how to set boundaries and how to say “no” are more prone to burning out at work than those who simply care less.
Once you’ve entered the vicious circle of neglecting your needs, sleep, and sanity for the sake of work, the rest of the symptoms begin to follow. Here are some of the most prominent ones:
Decreased sense of accomplishment at work;
Flunk in motivation;
Compromised cognitive performance;
Compromised creativity and professional judgment;
Interpersonal conflicts at work and in personal life;
Skipping work, etc.
As you can see, exhaustion can take many shapes and forms, and as you learn how to recognize it, you’ll manage to prevent most of these negative symptoms.
The 12 Stages of Burnout
According to Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North, burnout syndrome develops through 12 stages that begin long before the most painful symptoms become obvious.
The 12 stages are:
1. Excessive ambition: it’s self-explanatory that the more you care about the outcome, the more you invest yourself in the job. Also, studies show that engagement at work is associated with higher odds of burnout.
2. Self-pressure to work harder: the higher your ambitions are, the more you push yourself to achieve the goal.
3. Neglecting your needs: when ambition becomes an obsession, you begin to sacrifice self-care to work.
4. Conflict displacement: instead of noticing that your problems stem from self-pressure, you start blaming others: boss, colleagues, the job itself, etc.
5. Work becomes the only preoccupation: as the frustrations keep piling up, you are no longer able to focus on anything else but work.
6. Denial: your impatience for others mounts, but you still can’t recognize the source of the problem. Everyone else seems incompetent, lazy, and a burden to you.
7. Withdrawal: finally, you begin to withdraw from your family and social circles.
8. Behavioral changes: aggression, irritability, snapping, or crying for no reason become the new normal.
9. Depersonalization: the detachment from your life and identity becomes unbearable, and you start feeling like you have very little control over your life.
10. Anxiety and emptiness: when your balance in life is seriously infringed, it’s pretty common to feel empty and anxious. In a desire to feel alive again, many people turn to thrill-seeking behaviors such as substance abuse, gambling, overeating, etc.
11. Depression: the void can’t be filled artificially. You begin to lose the sense of meaning and purpose and to feel hopeless. At some point, all the walls are torn down, and depression kicks in.
12. Mental or physical collapse: finally, your brain and body can’t take it anymore. Medical or mental health attention becomes necessary to overcome the weakness.
As you can see, burnout doesn’t happen in a single day. It can cook slowly for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and sometimes we also adapt to unhealthy conditions. Years can pass before our eyes by the time we reach some of the more critical phases like withdrawal or behavioral changes.
It’s important to be well informed about the problem and able to locate whether you’re headed down the burnout road or you’re simply excited about a new goal or project.
How to Prevent Yourself from Burnout
The best way to prevent burnout is to implement a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Although you can’t always prevent stress from happening, you can choose how you prepare for it and how you react to it.
Besides helping us stay healthy, regular exercise also helps us stay sane. It helps us vent frustrations and gives us an emotional boost.
You don’t have to be regular at the gym to achieve this: a regular walk, stretching, yoga, or some dance cardio could do the trick as well. The key is consistency.
A healthy and versatile diet is another important source of stress resilience. Healthy food helps us build a stronger immune system, and certain foods, such as omega-3 fat acids (fish, walnuts just no name a few), work as natural antidepressants.
Good Night’s Sleep
Regular sleeping cycles help us stay “in control”. Going to bed at the same time each evening and waking up at the same time each morning gives our brain and body a sense of routine and familiarity, plus, enough sleep is crucial for rational thinking and emotional regulation. The secret here is to be in tune with the circadian rhythms and get to bed before midnight.
As human beings, we’re conditioned to negative thinking, but assuming negative consequences can be life-saving in dangerous situations. This evolutionary leftover called the negativity bias is where many of our self-debilitating beliefs and behaviors stem from.
Many people think that having a positive mindset means ignoring reality (which is often negative) and pretending that everything is fine. In reality, the positive mindset is the complete opposite: no matter how hard life is, we should acknowledge the tough times, but also try to find something good in it. It could be a valuable lesson, a successfully overcome challenge or an experience that brought us closer to other people.
For example, keeping a gratitude journal every morning and every evening for no more than five minutes can help you wire your brain to positivity and lead you towards achieving a positive mindset.
Planning, prioritizing, and also realistically estimating your working capacities over a certain period of time is crucial for preventing burnout.
Sometimes we fail to recognize the early signs of burnout, and we become aware that we’ve pushed it too far only when it’s too late.
In such a scenario, the question is: how to heal? Here are a few things you can do.
Recognize the Source
Not all burnout stems from work. If you remember the definition, any kind of emotionally draining work over a longer period can cause this kind of exhaustion and system collapse.
Sometimes it’s a mixture of factors: work, a demanding academic schedule, family issues, caring for a loved person with a serious health condition, relationship problems, etc.
Identify the source of your burnout: what’s the thing that’s been eating up most of your energy? Is there anything that’s been costing you a lot of nerves lately? If you can identify the main source of stress, it will make it much easier for you to come up with a solution.
What Can You Change Right Away?
Sometimes minor changes in our routine can make a major impact on how we feel. Perhaps slight changes in your schedule or a more realistic estimation of how much you can do in one day or one week could disburden you a bit. Learn how to say no. Detangle yourself from what you do. Redraw the boundaries.
And while these won’t magically get you out of burnout, as more serious changes are necessary for that, they might give you back a sense of control over your life.
Having too much on your plate usually leads to burnout once it becomes impossible to successfully juggle everything you’ve taken on. Taking at least some control back could open the door for a more serious change.
Whether you like it or not, in most cases, severe burnout requires professional attention. Pay a visit to your physician and do a detailed medical check as your health might be compromised due to prolonged stress.
Psychologists and psychotherapists can be of great help here, too. They can help you identify potential self-debilitating beliefs and behaviors, and help you overcome them. They could also assist you in creating a more rational plan of action for the future––this way you don’t end up in the same position again.
Talking to your mentors, friends and family can be of great help, too. Someone from your community might have gone through the same thing and learning from their experience could bring you a lot of benefits. Even if that’s not the case, simply connecting to people you love and being heard and understood can reduce anxiety levels and set us back on track.
Work on Your Boundaries
Although painful, burnout itself is a valuable life lesson. Your mind and body are alarming you that they’ve had too much.
If you’re in burnout, and someone’s asking you to do something for them, here’s what you should do:
Take a break;
Analyze the situation;
Estimate the amount of energy you have;
Estimate the amount of free time you have;
Is the offer valuable or interesting to you in any way?
Do you intrinsically want to participate, and have the resources to do it (time, above all)?
Declining requests and saying “no” isn’t selfish nor rude. It's self-care and self-respect 101.
Burnout often feels like everything around you is moving frantically in a whirlpool, while you’re standing powerless and exposed.
As you keep blaming outside factors for your situation, you probably fail to notice that there are a few things you can do to improve it:
Plan ahead: write down everything you need to do each day and make a timeline for your tasks;
Prioritize: not all tasks are of equal importance. Pick one or two that are crucial for you to have a successful day and focus on them. Everything else you manage to complete is an extra. Do this every day.
Use time blocking: when we’re in burnout, tasks that used to take only 15 minutes to complete, now take up to an hour or more. The reason for this is the lack of focus and procrastination in which we indulge in. Time blocking can help you overcome this and regain your productivity and sense of control.
Do work at work: stop taking work home. Turn off your work phone, mute notifications, log off from your work email or, more importantly, communicate to your superiors about the issues you’re facing. Connecting with them and being honest about your needs could get some workload off your back and help get you back on your feet
Take Care of Yourself
When you’re burned out, your mind and body are crying for attention. When was the last time you did something for yourself? Splashed in the tub? Prepared a lovely meal for yourself? Enjoyed a book in the evening, next to a scented candle, all by yourself? Or, simply took some time, or even days, off to relax.
We assume it’s been a while.
Try to remember something that makes you feel good and relaxed, and make time in your schedule to enjoy it. Take an evening off, create a cozy atmosphere at home, and enjoy the little things. Or consider a vacation, a weekend getaway or a retreat to help yourself find the new center in your life.
While the state of burnout might be quite normalized in today’s way of living, with the majority of people experiencing it sooner or later in their careers, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less serious.
Reaching the state of burnout means that your inner systems are crashing: your body and mind can’t take your tempo anymore and they’re alarming you to slow down and change something.
It’s more than important that you listen to them and take a moment to act on them. After all, that’s the only thing you can really do.
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