Dealing With Burnout In Normal Times And Unprecedented Ones
Updated: Aug 20
Burnout is all too common in today’s world. Unlike some previous generations, many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s had an analogue childhood but are living a fully digital adulthood.
Though being constantly tuned in to things through our devices has its advantages, the price we pay is often a heavy one. For many people, being unable to “switch off” mentally leads to a state of elevated stress which becomes chronic and brings additional health issues to boot. Throw other life stressors into the mix, and even without the chaos of a pandemic, burnout is imminent.
What is Burnout?
Given the rapidly changing workplace, with complex matrix reporting structures, globally dispersed teams, tons of cultural nuances and of course, daily office politics, burnout is now recognised as a serious workplace issue. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as:
“resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
This is significant because it moves the spotlight from the individual to the work environment. Burnout is not just one person struggling to cope but needs to be viewed in the context of how the work/workplace is contributing to their situation. The responsibility for managing employee burnout has shifted away from the individual and towards the organisation.
Why is burnout such a workplace phenomenon today?
Across organisations, we have built a high-performance culture. Every leader wants to run a high-performance team, be a high potential, focus on success constantly, and as we are realising, it comes at a cost. If nothing else, this pandemic has really helped many many people slow down, some willingly and voluntarily and some, unfortunately, by circumstance.
And that’s why we hear burnout more.
Firstly, burnout is not equal to working too hard or just overwork. A manager who is continuously feeling his work in not valued can also reach a point of burnout. It is not necessarily just the guys who are firefighting always. On the other hand, when someone has to keep proving that they are busy or overworked constantly, then eventually that mismatch can also lead to burnout
How do you recognise burnout?
Burnout manifests in these ways:
· You feel exhausted despite getting enough sleep
· Your work suffers. You rarely feel the drive to take the initiative or feel excited about work or even start an exercise program you know will help
· You have difficulty concentrating, coming up with new ideas, or staying focused
· Sleep eludes you
· You feel cranky and irritable
· The smallest effort saps your energy
· Making decisions seems like an insurmountable task
· You may feel cynical, unmotivated or resentful
· Constant physical and emotional fatigue seems like a way of life
How do you differentiate regular stress and burnout?
Stress is typically a result of having many things to do and being pulled in all directions. Yet, it compels action in the person feeling stressed. They keep at it, thinking that they will get the better of the stressor and feel better too. It just needs things to get done one by one.
Burnout is a very different feeling. It can be a feeling of emptiness and complete mental exhaustion when nothing seems enough. Those experiencing burnouts reach a point where they don’t care anymore, devoid of hope and unable to take any decisive action.
If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. And while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.
How can you avoid burnout?
Feeling fried all the time is no way to get by! Use these tips and tools to avoid burnout. Do remember that the contribution of the work environment is significant. If you are a team leader, you need to make systemic changes and not just expect the affected individuals to sort it out on their own.
· Consider the “Three R” approach to burnout:
o Recognise- the warning signs
o Reverse- seek support, deal with the stress, and find your way back to a healthier state of mind
o Resilience- build a barrier between you and the stressors that got you down
· Self-awareness is the best starting point. Many people stay in denial about being burned out and continue to push their way forward, but without any seeming progress, or with adverse effects on their health. First, accept that there is a problem that you need to address.
· Try and pinpoint the source of your burnout. Is it work-related? Family or lifestyle-related? Or are the seeds of burnout somewhere deep within your psyche? Hash it down to its underlying cause, one that you can then tackle.
· Cut down on time spent in the digital world to what is necessary, and then consciously switch off. Stop mindless scrolling or the new trend, “doom scrolling,” which means endlessly looking for information online on something that is already stressing you out. Needless to say, that further contributes to burnout.
· Pick up a restoring hobby such as nature walk, gardening, playing a long-neglected musical instrument.
· There is no denying the magic of regular exercise in reversing burnout and its physical as well as emotional symptoms. Get the blood pumping and the endorphins coursing through your system using any form of exercise suitable for you. At the very least, spend half an hour in the open air to get you energised enough to take on more.
· Make your relationships work for you. Engage in a light and positive manner with friends, family and colleagues. Share a meal or a laugh. Enjoy the simple pleasures and just being in each other’s company. Keep energy vampires and “sad sacks,” i.e. chronically negative people at bay.
· Take up volunteering for a cause that has personal meaning to you. Giving back to the community brings a wave of positivity back to you.
If you are leading or managing teams, look for signs of burnout proactively. The problem is not just the person, it is the system too. You may need to address it head-on at a much larger environmental and work culture level.
Sometimes, all it takes to get to the other side of burnout is cultivating a fresh perspective.