*This article originally appeared on the author’s LinkedIn page
As the year ends, many are looking forward to a much-needed respite from the intensity and stress of work. However, for some, this break may not even scratch the surface because of burnout. This condition is different from the normal fatigue resulting from continual work and activity. Burnout is characterized by extreme stress and exhaustion; and is often closely associated with intense depression and anxiety. Millions of people from all backgrounds and in multiple career stages suffer from burnout; and it costs not only in productivity, but more importantly, personal and social well-being. The signs of burnout include but are not limited to an inability to cope with stress, lack of enthusiasm for work or engaging with life, difficulty in completing or getting tasks started, diminished capacity for activities, and feelings of hopelessness.
Like many, I didn’t recognize that I was suffering from burnout. It took friends telling me some hard truths, paying attention to my behaviors and acknowledging my state of mind to finally come to terms with being burned out. However, even the recognition wasn’t quite enough. I made some temporary adjustments with workload, boundaries, physical rest, and getting professional help, but would go right back to doing what triggered my burnout. It was this continual cycle that made me realize I had some serious blind spots. Below are some of the key steps I took to make sure that I didn’t waste the lessons that burnout was trying to teach me.
- Being honest with myself and others. Trying to push through burnout backfires and can actually make things worse. Social, cultural and work pressures as well as high personal expectations can fuel this lack of honesty about being at a breaking point. However, once I was very honest with myself and others that I was burned out, it made it easier to take steps towards making changes and adjustments that would support my recovery. I had to let go of needing to be superwoman and meeting external expectations. In other words, I fully acknowledged my humanity and that gave me permission and courage to care for myself more deeply, ask for support and restructure my activities without focusing on guilt. At the end of the day, my lack of honesty was hurting me the most and I was feeling it the most, not anyone else.
- Practicing mindfulness about the motivations for working beyond my capacity and feelings associated with rest. Part of being honest with myself meant asking why I was approaching work in certain ways and why I was using so much mental and emotional space to worry. Rather than push through tasks or use all of my rest time to just disconnect, I became intentional about addressing things like imposter syndrome, how I actually felt about the body of work I was involved in, and acknowledging how and why certain approaches to rest were more fulfilling for me. In short, I got to know myself again; and not the professional version of me, just me. That process gave me a lot of information that I could use to improve my life. The benefit of doing that helped me to identify what I truly valued, what I wanted my life to look like, what fed me and what depleted me.
- Developing a supportive environment and activating my support system to help me make necessary choices for my well- being. The focus on honesty and getting to know myself again meant I had to take baby action steps. Because I wasn’t acting like a robot or zombie anymore, I was moved to love myself through action. For me, that included considering beneficial career moves, restructuring certain work activities, walking away from some responsibilities, and prioritizing affirming activities (e.g. exercise and creative pursuits). Additionally, I had supportive friends and colleagues who not only encouraged healthier behaviors, but also held me accountable to my recovery and modeled self-care.
I’m still in the process of overcoming burnout, but recognizing my blind spots has helped me make progress I have not experienced so far. Although burnout is unpleasant, it can be an important messenger about who we are, our environment and what needs to be changed. However, if we don’t pay attention, those messages will go unheeded resulting in the repetition of unhealthy patterns.