I’m confused, what is burnout and do I have it?

Started abusing drugs? Alcohol? or even Coffee? These are early signs you could be experiencing burnout.

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Everyone has a different idea as to what ‘burnout’ is. I read 15 different articles on burnout and each one said a different thing. It wasn’t until I started thinking about my life, my choices, the people around me and burnout as an idea that I realized I experienced burnout. It cannot be pinpointed down to one specific symptom and everyone experiences burnout in their own way, which, is why reading too many articles on the phenomenon confused me.

Q: Who is right? Surely the World Health Organization? But the National Health Service is also extremely credible? So is the New York clinic that promoted the awareness of burnout? … But my experiences differ?

A: Everyone is right, including you! Burnout is a relatively new idea and one that is constantly evolving. Everyone experiences burnout in their own way and uses their own method or vice to cope, intentionally or unintentionally. I didn’t even know I suffered from burnout until 5 years after the symptoms were first visible to everyone else.

According to the BBC, burnout was first recognized as a problem in New York City in 1974 by German-American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. It is still quite a young phenomenon, however, as it has only recently been taken seriously as a global illness. The spotlight is being shone on the workplace highlighting the archaic practice of firms such as investment banks with their ‘magic roundabout’ for graduates, leading to high stress, mental illness and in extreme cases, suicide. This has paved the way for the tech industry to revolutionize working hours and employee benefits. Some firms have even removed working hours altogether and sponsor regular social events for employees to reduce work-related stress and induce a fun working environment. Studies show that this leads to increased productivity and happiness in the workplace.

The WHO suggests burnout has three elements: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work. Part of the reason why I was initially confused was that my symptoms did not fit with the WHO’s diagnosis. I experienced the three elements of burnout but in a different fashion. Initially, I suffered feelings of exhaustion but powered through and worked harder than everyone else until the feeling of exhaustion became ‘normal’. I threw myself deeper into my work and naturally, my performance improved. I created myself a vast pipeline after which, I unintentionally took a step back to nurture this pipeline over creating new business, the more stressful element of my work. Over time my performance began to drop in comparison to my previous performance but fortunately, I was still ahead of my peers so it wasn’t noticeable and I didn’t spot an issue. I convinced myself that this was ‘normal’ and I was just being lazy.

So how can you spot early signs of burnout and do something about it before it turns to depression or worse? My advice would be to take a step back and ask your self some very simple but important questions (be honest with yourself):

  • Have I experienced a change in my eating or drinking habits? (maybe started to drink more coffee or caffeine drinks)
  • Have I started to drink more alcohol than normal?
  • Am I trying new or excessively using Narcotics?
  • Has there been a change to my personality?
  • Am I throwing myself deeper into my work?
  • Do I work more than 40 hours per week?
  • Am I working more than I am sleeping?
  • Do I always think about work? Do I work in my personal time?
  • Do I primarily socialize with work colleagues?

If you have answered yes to 2 or more of the above, these may be early signs of burnout. If you choose not to act, it will be wise to continue to ask yourself these questions on an ongoing basis and if you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to more questions, consider making a change to your work life.

Over my next few articles, I will cover my personal experience with burnout and my vices, how to keep your head above water and maintain a positive mindset, when I knew I was in a toxic environment that encouraged actions leading to burnout, and what to do if you have ignorant bosses as I did. Stay tuned for a story fuelled by long working hours, drugs, alcohol, prostitutes and more.

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