In today’s productivity-obsessed society, burnout is all too common a condition. Driven to get as much done in as little time as possible, we work ourselves deeper into emotional distress. It isn’t healthy, and it needs to change. That starts with recognizing the signs that you’re overworked - and taking action to address the problem.
It’s been described as a chronic workplace crisis. And according to the Harvard Business Review, it represents as much as $190 billion in healthcare spending annually. Moreover, not recognizing its signs in time may result in severe medical conditions including Type 2 Diabetes, coronary heart disease, and even death.
I’m speaking about burnout.
Burnout: Facts and Numbers
Burnout is a modern-era phenomenon which has never been more pressing, nor more severe. In a 2018 Gallup survey of approximately 7,500 full-time employees, 23 percent reported feeling constantly burned out. Another 44 percent said they sometimes suffer from the condition.
Our obsession with productivity, constant connectivity to the workplace, and the tendency of businesses to overload their most capable employees have together created the perfect storm of stress and exhaustion.
On some level, we all know this. We understand that we cannot be working 24/7. That we cannot subject ourselves to work-weeks upwards of 70 hours, that we cannot sacrifice sleep, diet, and exercise in the pursuit of our careers. Yet for some reason, many people simply seem unable to stop.
HBR rightly points out that burnout is a problem with company culture rather than with individual employees. Business leaders need to take an active role in managing workplace stress tied to factors like heavy workloads and lack of job security.
But we all have our own role to play in staving off the condition. That begins with understanding what burnout is.
“When you’re burned out, problems seem insurmountable, everything looks bleak, and it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care, let alone take action to help yourself,” reads a piece by Helpguide. "
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.
“As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place,” the piece continues. “Eventually, you may have nothing more to give.”
When It's Getting Personal
I've seen it myself, in friends and colleagues. It always starts slow and subtle, creeping up on you until it eventually seizes you in its grasp. You never think you're burning out until burnout hits you full in the face, and even then you sometimes want to deny it.
You're just tired. You just need to get a bit more sleep. You just need to finish this next project, and then things will be okay. The problem is that these are all lies you're telling yourself.
Once you're burnt out, you need a break. You need to step back and let yourself recuperate and recharge. It's possible to pull yourself out of burnout, but only by addressing its source, seeking help from friends and family, and, in extreme cases, seeking therapy.
It's not easy.
As such, the best thing you can do is clamp down on it before it gets severe. Recognize the signs that it's creeping up on you, and take action to deal with them.
Sign #1: Your Spoons Are Running Out
You used to have so much more energy. Now, though? You find yourself slaving away for hours at tasks that used to take you minutes, putting off things because you simply don’t have the energy to do them.
In short, you’re starting to run low on spoons.
I’ll explain. A few years ago, disability advocate Christine Miserandino wrote about something known as spoon theory. The idea is that if you are mentally and physically healthy, you have a never-ending supply of “spoons” available to you - energy to dedicate to basic tasks both in and out of the workplace.
The first sign of burnout is that you’re starting to run low on spoons. You have less energy than you used to. You’re operating in a state of perpetual exhaustion.
How to deal with it: Solution #1
First, think about what makes you feel exhausted. Are you getting enough sleep at night? It may be worthwhile to look into melatonin supplements or sleeping pills as a temporary fix if you’re suffering from insomnia.
If you are sleeping properly, start looking at other factors that might be draining your energy. Are you eating properly and getting in the proper amount of exercise? Are you feeling overwhelmed by your workload?
Address these factors before they get worse. Because left alone, they will.
Sign #2: You’ve Started Procrastinating
I’ve long maintained that procrastination isn’t something that generally happens due to laziness. There’s always a deeper reason behind it. An underlying cause that’s causing you to look at the things you need to get done with a sense of anxiety and repulsion.
If you’re starting to have trouble motivating yourself to work, be wary. An increased tendency to procrastinate - to be late for work, skip meetings, and miss deadlines - is another sign that burnout is looming just over the horizon. You’re starting to get run down, and you’re seeking distractions to avoid confronting your anxiety over not getting enough done.
How to deal with it: Solution #2
There’s a lot of advice online on how you can beat procrastination. These include setting achievable goals, tackling important tasks first, and attempting new workflows.
But if your procrastination is tied to the fact that you’re starting to feel overwhelmed with your professional or personal life, they’re band-aid fixes, at best. You need to take the time to think about why you’re feeling this way. Talk to someone - ideally a therapist - to develop better coping strategies for workplace anxiety.
Beyond that, you may want to look at reducing your workflow, at least in the short term.
Sign #3: Everything Annoys You
You’re irritable. Things that would ordinarily slide off your back make you snap. You’re taking out your frustrations on the people around you, and you can’t help but feel bitter and negative about pretty much everything.
It’s a terrible frame of mind to be in, and a big sign that something in your life isn’t quite right for you.
How to deal with it: Solution #3
Meditate. Relax. Disconnect. Start practicing positive self-talk.
Find something you enjoy doing it, and make a point of immersing yourself in it. Rather than feeling guilty about not getting work done, focus on the fact that by taking time off, you’ll come back refreshed, and more productive for it.
Sign #4: You’re Experiencing A Growing Sense of Dread
You feel helpless. Hopeless. Anxious. It seems as though there’s a pall hanging over everything you do.
Rather than satisfaction, you’re starting to feel dread about your work. Rather than enjoying your creative freedom, you feel trapped and run down.
How to deal with it: Solution #4
Constant, buzzing anxiety isn’t just a sign of burnout. It’s a red flag that you need to seek therapy sooner rather than later. You need to talk to a trained professional about how you’re feeling, and understand that there’s no shame in doing so.
Sign #5: Your Body Feels Like it’s Falling Apart
Burnout doesn’t always manifest psychologically. It can also take the form of physical symptoms. Headaches, consistent muscle pain, unusually long and frequent bouts of illness. These are signs that you’re on your way to a big crash.
As noted by WebMD, the physical effects of stress on the body are quite well-documented.
How to deal with it: Solution #5
Talk to your doctor or a trained mental health counselor. If your ongoing fatigue and illness are a result of burnout, they can help you work out a way to stave it off. And if they’re a symptom of something more serious, it’s better to catch it sooner rather than later.
Bonus solution #6
Have you heard about Spiral Dynamics? In terms of team management, it suggests that teams advance from one stage to the next, form identities based on ideals, and continually broaden their horizons. Spiral dynamics aids in adapting to changes, maintains sustainable growth, and reduces low-value work.
In order to manage projects successfully, foster teamwork, and reduce burnout, it is imperative that low-value work be minimized.
Alas, being burnt out while working from home with boundaries between life and work blurring is a more frequent case now.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent burnout:
- Be realistic in your expectations. Working from home in quarantine is not the same as working from home without limits of lockdown.
- Track time of work to help you set the healthy boundaries we discussed above. After work find time for activities, especially after you log off for the day.
- Utilize the communication channels for feeling connected and assisted.
Burnout is something we all skirt the edges of now and then. By learning to recognize the signs that you might be falling deeper into it, you can dust it off, ask for help and move forward with your life.
About the Author:
Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.