‘I feel like I’m just going through the motions, the fire’s just not there anymore’
Even for those of us both lucky and driven enough to be in their dream professions, this insidious state of mind can creep in at some point and can wreak havoc on your state of being. It can cause you to question what drove you to pursue your choice of occupation in the first place, as well as challenge your general sense of worthiness. For those people in stressful and high-pressure environments, it can appear relatively quickly as those people may not be perfectly ideal for the roles they are in, but burnout is not necessarily restricted to people within these environments: even those in laid-back jobs can get caught out if they don’t know what to look for.
Burnout is not necessarily restricted to the workplace either: everyone in life experiences at least one rough patch in their family lives, and both your personality and how you spend your time off can influence how you are able to cope with what life throws at you.
It can even be argued that even homemakers can feel burnout sometimes: there is one famous episode in the Simpsons where Marge starts to crack under the pressure of raising her family and after snapping in her car and causing a major traffic jam on the Springfield bridge, she decides to take an extended vacation at Rancho Relaxo. Her husband Homer is left to pick up the pieces at home and both he and their kids learn to appreciate her role in the family in her absence.
What is burnout?
Funnily enough, the people who tend to feel burnout most rapidly are not the people at the bottom of the corporate ladder nor the top: usually, it’s those stuck in the middle of the ladder i.e. supervisors or managers that take the fall the hardest because they tend to carry the most burden from both looking after those working under them and reporting to the executive officers above them.
So, what exactly is burnout then? Well, it’s exactly like the name suggests: it’s a state of mind where you lose your inner passion for the job. There are two distinctive stages of burnout:
- Early stage
This is where the demands of the job start to get to you: you feel like the tasks that you were previously able to cope with are now overwhelming. If you’ve had a crappy day at work, it can feel like the end of the world, however, it’s normal for everyone to have a bad day at work sometimes. Hell, even the bad week at work is occasionally normal…if this happens too often though, the job’s probably not suitable for you, and for you it’s probably best to move on before you get fired.
On a personal note…
In retrospect, I know now in one of my previous jobs that I started to feel this stage of burnout due to both the ever-decreasing amount of staff and the increasing workload, which was compounded by the feeling of isolation due to leaving home for the first time and living an hour away from my brother and several hours away from either of my parents and not getting enough sleep due to the on-call shifts that I often did. Though I’m grateful I did the hard graft and learned a lot of things from that job, gained some new friends as well as learning which areas to further pursue in my future career and which areas I should ignore in future, (I’d never cut it as a nurse, I belong behind the scenes!) I’m also glad that I decided to bow out when I did.
Most people at this point of the burnout cycle would seriously consider either taking an extended vacation to refresh themselves or resign from the position if they feel like they need to change jobs or start a new stage of life. The majority of the time, just having the weekend off is enough to recharge the batteries, however for those starting to burn out, the weekend alone is still too short to recover from the demands of work.
Early stage burnout is defined by the following characteristics:
- Being hypersensitive to any criticism and overly emotional
- Being overly engaged in the workplace, ignoring your social life in order to meet demands (this is especially common in the medical and health care professions, as unfortunately patients don’t always go through emergencies in the nine-to-five timeframe)
- Beginning to feel ill more often due to the stress (particularly the high levels of the hormones adrenaline/epinephrine and cortisol) compromising your immune system
- Being more anxious than normal
- Starting to feel less vivacious and energetic as burnout progresses into the later stages
At this stage, it is usually possible to imagine life getting better once they are able to get things under control or escape the pressures of work for a while, but as burnout gets into the later stages, it becomes much harder to hold onto hope.
- Late stage
In the later stages of burnout, it becomes similar to mild to moderate depression in that people tend to lose their sense of worthiness both in the workplace and outside of it. It can be easy for someone who is stressed for a long period (i.e. in the early stage of burnout) to put up with what they are feeling and slip into late-stage or full-blown burnout without even noticing. In this stage of burnout, the following symptoms are common:
- Feeling cynical about the job because of the loss of passion and feeling like you are just going ‘through the motions’
- Lacking a sense of engagement in the workplace and not listening to constructive advice like you would otherwise
- Feeling emotionally numb (similar to a way that some types of pharmaceutical drugs make others feel)
- Feeling a distinct lack of hope and motivation: housework may also become neglected and people may exhibit a disheveled appearance due to this aspect being seen as ‘work’ that requires an emotional investment
- Feeling a sense of helplessness at the situation
What personality types can exacerbate the feelings of stress and full-on burnout?
Some people are far more susceptible to burnout than others. Those with perfectionistic tendencies and type A personalities (like I discuss in more detail here) are particularly at risk as they struggle to find confidence within themselves even under normal circumstances and stress can compound the feeling of incompetence, especially if they are in a job that isn’t suitable for them in the first place. Individuals who consider themselves as ‘control freaks’ also fall into this category, and those who suffer from anxiety and depression are also high on the risk ladder.
What are the work factors that can accelerate burnout?
Some jobs are basically minefields for burnout, whereas others are less likely to trigger it. The types of work which claim the most casualties include the following:
- Work that trained monkeys or machines can perform if they had half a chance i.e. work that is very monotonous
- Areas that require you to keep an eye on multiple stations at once and multi-task
- Workplaces which enforce high speed at all costs for the sake of money (fast food joints are notorious for this)
- Work which results in little recognition from your co-workers or from your clients
- Work which you are under qualified for or you are overqualified for
What other lifestyle factors beside work can trigger burnout?
Like I said above, work is the main reason that people burn out, but it isn’t the only reason. It is often a combination of factors from both working life and home that lead people to feel the mental exhaustion that burnout gives them.
Some lifestyle factors that can lead to burnout include the following:
- Suffering from insomnia or not getting enough sleep in general: people working in healthcare that work split or on-call shifts are at particular risk here
- Being a people-pleaser all the time i.e. not being able to say ‘no’ to anybody when they ask something of you,
- Not spending enough time winding down from work, either on vacation or during non-working hours
- Not getting enough exercise: it is considered a very good de-stressing method and a lack of it can not affect your physical health, but can also drag down your mood
- Being in an isolating situation i.e. living hours away from your closest living relatives or partners/spouses/kids
- Trying to be a ‘superman’ or ‘superwoman’ who does everything without delegating any responsibilities to anyone else
How you can spot burnout before it becomes serious?
There are several warning signs that your body and your mind give you when normal everyday stress starts to turn more serious. They can be physical, emotional or psychological in nature, and they are listed in the chart below:
How can one prevent burnout from happening to them in the first place?
Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise program, getting enough sleep at night, having the support of family and friends nearby and taking time out for yourself are all good starting points. It may also be good to evaluate your suitability for the work you do: it’s definitely possible that the work you’re doing isn’t what you’re destined to do, and another career path may be the ticket you need.
Other ideas to help prevent burnout include:
- Giving time for your creative side to shine rather than dedicating all your time to getting ‘work’ done
- A break from technology may help you to properly unwind: instead of taking your laptop or phone to bed, get lost in a good novel before going to sleep
- Learn relaxation techniques such as yoga/meditation or for those more active, a good run, endurance swim or Zumba class can help
- Give yourself permission to say ‘no’: sure, occasionally it may hurt feelings, but your health and sanity are worth it in the long run
Oops, now it’s too late and I’m now burnt out… what do I do now?
- First thing… STOP what you are doing right now, it’s NOT working! Something desperately needs to change once you’ve hit full-blown burnout: your health will only break down further if you decide to keep going at this rate.
- In order to be able to heal from burnout, you need to give yourself permission to slow down and re-evaluate what you’re doing. If this means getting your bosses or other demanding individuals cranky, so be it. In most professions, meeting deadlines isn’t the end of the world, so pass on the workload to anyone within close proximity.
- It’s normal to want some degree of isolation when you’re burnt out as having to put with people can feel like a heavy burden. However, actually giving yourself a chance to vent at someone who will stick with you no matter and will listen to you without judgement is a good way to begin to take the pressure off your shoulders, plus the other person will probably feel flattered that you trust them with your feelings.
- After a degree of time, you will once again find the strength to look back in retrospect about the situation that led you to get burnt out in the first place. When this happens, it’s a good opportunity to try and figure out what you need to change in order to prevent yourself from getting caught again in the downward spiral. If that means completely changing your life by means of changing jobs or getting rid of people that are ‘toxic’ i.e. people that do not give you any support or constructive feedback rather than straight-up insults, then so be it.