Nobody says this, but it’s true. Because we live amongst insane, megalomaniacal, over-zealous devotees of an economic religion that consumes human beings for profit, people will tell you that there is no such thing as burnout.
The DSM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diagnostic_and_Statistical_Manual_of_Mental_Disorders ), that wholly ideologically driven arbiter of sanity, denies it even exists as a disorder. Except it is very real and it does.
A lot of people become artists as part of their burnout recovery programme. It is for this reason that we’re discussing burnout in this blog. What could be a better creative idea than recreating yourself?
Important note: This blog post is not medical advice and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. If you are affected by the issues discussed in this post, or suspect you are, you must seek professional medical advice. Don’t argue with me. You must.
What is Burnout?
If you have to ask, you have never experienced it. If you have experienced it, you know that burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by full blown depression (though I claim the two are distinct). It can happen to you if you experience long-term stress, especially in your job or career, where you have worked in a physically, emotionally or intellectually draining role for a long time, without reward, respite, recognition, respect or recreation. It is especially likely to happen if your efforts have failed to produce the expected results and you feel deeply disillusioned as a result. Burnout occurs when the balance between effort applied and success derived is badly out of balance.
It has been said that “burnout is a cunning thief that robs the world of its best and brightest, by feeding on their energy, enthusiasm and passion, transforming these positive qualities into exhaustion, frustration and disillusionment.” Yep, that’s a pretty good summary.
Some of the tell tale signs that you might be experiencing burnout include:
- A feeling that every work day is a bad day.
- You feel exhausted much of the time, with little energy for just getting by.
- You lose interest in your work. It becomes joyless and depressing.
- You feel overwhelmed by your commitments and responsibilities (a.k.a. “Drowning, not waving”).
- You engage in escapist behaviours, like drinking, drug abuse, excessive time on social media websites, driving nowhere just because it feels like you’re going somewhere.
- You might not suffer fools as gladly as you once did. You become impatient with others.
- Your life and/or work feel hopeless.
- You might experience physical symptoms, like chest pains, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic back and muscle pains, shortness of breath, sleeplessness or heart palpitations. (These are serious – see a doctor!)
Is Burnout something like having a cold?
No, it isn’t like having a cold. It’s not trivial and it’s not short lived. It isn’t relatively easy to treat and it can be fatal. They say you can avoid burnout, recognise the symptoms, put in some coping strategies and recover fully from it, but some people never recover and burnout rarely advances in this clearly delineated, staged way. If you burn out, you live with the effects of burnout constantly, but at varying degrees of intensity. It creeps up on you. Sometimes your avoidance and coping strategies are overwhelmed by circumstances or you are caught unawares. Very often, the recovery strategies are slow and prone to setbacks. Recovery is by degrees. You never really ever lose the imprint of the impact of being burnt out. The scar is permanent, though you can live the rest of your life in a somewhat more satisfactory state than being in sheer burnout.
There’s a lot they don’t tell you about burnout, but what they do tell you is worth knowing anyway. Here’s some of it:
Symptoms of Burnout
Some have theorised that the burnout process can be divided into twelve phases, which are not necessarily experienced sequentially. I feel that some of these phases can be concurrent and you don’t need to experience all twelve to be thoroughly burnt out, but hey, psychologists have to start somewhere, so they made this list.
- A strong need to prove oneself – Whether due to parental expectations, the desire to be loved or a rejection by somebody you care about or admire, the start of burnout can be the excessive ambition to “show them all”, either through work or in your life. This “burning ambition” can burn you, when the determination borders on becoming a compulsion. What the psychologists miss is that the need to prove oneself is not the only reason people can tend toward burnout. Sometimes, you have to work at an extreme pace to recover from a business failure, or to pay debts arising or to prevent financial implosion in your life, due to commitments made in better times that circumstance no longer allows you to honour. You might simply have been overly optimistic and taken a bet on yourself and your ability to succeed that you subsequently lost. Nine out of ten ventures fail. Another reason for embarking on the slippery slope toward burnout can be that you’re trying to recover from burnout, paradoxically. Nobody ever warns you that in trying to recover from burnout, you can burn out.
- Working harder – All the business and self development literature says that it’s a good thing to consistently go the extra mile, proving yourself and your worth to others or to try to fit into an organisation and corporate culture that might be at odds with your own values and ethics. The literature is wrong. You don’t have to justify your existence and value to anybody. However, in typical fashion, the burnout victim believes that they need to take on more work than others and push themselves harder. They begin to sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to work more. The burnout victim becomes obsessed with doing everything themselves, for fear of being let down by others and having their own work compromised as a result. They strive to appear to be a lynchpin, irreplaceable because they are able to do so much, without the help of others. We’ve all worked with this self-defined superman or woman. We also all know that no corporation regards anybody as irreplaceable.
- Neglecting their needs – Since they’ve devoted all their waking hours to working, they now have no time and energy to do anything else, including eat properly, exercise, interact with friends and family, pursue hobbies, dress well, get their hair cut, maintain high standards of personal hygiene, look after their health issues or get enough sleep. Their bills are paid late and their cars are not serviced regularly. They don’t clean house and have no time to organise and maintain an environment conducive to relaxation or creative pursuits. All of these personal needs are sacrificed to reduce the time and energy spent on them, so that more can be spent on working.
- Displacement of conflicts – People on the way to burning out are usually fully aware that what they are doing is not right or good for them. They can feel it. However, they may feel they have no choice but to keep going. There is that phrase, attributed to Churchill, which says, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Instead of addressing the root cause of the problem, people have a tendency to soldier on and persevere, because “winners never quit and quitters never win”, right? This conscious decision to ignore the harm and hope they can get away with it could lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening, because there is a disconnect at the very heart of their being. They know they are harming themselves, but don’t see that they have a choice. This is often when the first physical symptoms of burnout become manifest.
- Abandoning of values – People on their way to burnout isolate themselves from others. They don’t want to talk about it and they avoid conflicts. The state of denial they reach helps them to continue to ignore their basic physical needs as a living organism, while the story they tell themselves about the state of their life also changes. They begin to think that things they once held as important, including their values, don’t matter (even if only temporarily, until the work is done), because they must succeed at the work they are doing at all costs (including costs to their own well being). Work consumes all the energy they have left, leaving no energy and precious little time for friends and recreational pursuits or hobbies. They construct a new value system, based around succeeding in their work, come hell or high water and as a consequence, they start to be emotionally blunt.
- Denial of emerging problems – The person begins to become intolerant and anti-social. Social contact becomes unbearable to them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. The person on their way to burnout commonly blames their increasing problems on time pressure, stress and all the work they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed within themselves.
- Withdrawal – Social contact is now at a minimum, turning into isolation. They build a metaphorical wall around themselves. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for release, since they are obsessively working “by the book”. Once feeling withdrawn and isolated, the person can often develop feelings of being without hope or direction. They can feel cut off from humanity. Trivial, vacuous or flippant diversionary entertainments can seem particularly disgusting.
- Obvious behavioural changes – Co-workers, friends and family and other people in what remains of the burnout victim’s social circles can no longer overlook the behavioural changes in this person. “She’s not like that usually.” “He’s not himself these days.” “You’ve changed.”
- Depersonalisation – Losing contact with themselves, their passion, the people and things they loved and what really matters to them (or used to), they no longer see themselves as worthwhile or valuable. They might think the same of others, too. The person loses track of their personal needs and their view of life narrows to only seeing the present time (the one time when “living in the moment” really is not helpful), while their life turns into a series of repetitive, routine, mechanical functions. Breadwinners can begin to feel like mere ATM machines for their families. The spark has been extinguished. The thrill has gone.
- Inner emptiness – A black, limitless, unfillable, empty void grows inside them and to overcome this feeling, they might overeat, indulge in risky or inadvisable sex, abuse alcohol or take recreational drugs to excess. These activities are frequently extreme and exaggerated. They’re a mute cry for help.
- Depression – Burnout can include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, and indifferent and believes that there is nothing for them in the future, except more of the current, unending torment. Life no longer has meaning. Typical depression symptoms arise.
- Burnout – They collapse, physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention, such as is available. The medical profession, it has to be said, can be quite inept at treating burnout. Signing somebody off work is rare. Medicating them with prescription drugs is more common (but how does this differ materially from throwing recreational drugs at the inner emptiness? I’d really like to know.) Occasionally, counselling is available, but frequently ineffective and even counterproductive. The physical damage can be permanent and life threatening. The emotional collapse (what they used to glibly refer to as “a nervous breakdown”) is also debilitating at best and potentially dangerous at worst. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as the only remaining escape from their situation. Fortunately, only a few will actually commit suicide, but each one is one too many.
Economies and corporations love compliant, self-sacrificing, productivity machines, instead of human beings with families, lives, interests and hobbies, who are valued for their own sake. Every corporation, it seems, will have potential burnout cases that they are positively encouraging to burn out, through a series of appraisals, rewards and recognition, to make work their only priority, work harder for longer hours, and accept fewer rewards. They are put under constant stress to donate more of their personal time and to perform even better than before. Sure, it raises productivity and more work gets done for less money, at least in the short term, but they’re not doing the accounting honestly, over the long term. When the burnout victim burns out, they are simply replaced with another eager future burnout victim, only too willing to please. Corporations and our entire economic edifice are more than a little complicit in the destruction of human beings through burnout.
This is one of the great unspoken truths of our time. The economy and many workplaces are committing assault upon ordinary, diligent, loyal workers, resulting in actual bodily harm. Nobody is going to jail for it. It’s not even discussed. In fact, it’s barely discussable.
In the final analysis, however, as much as you are treated as replaceable and disposable, you’re not. Your contribution is uniquely your own and for all their posturing, the corporation is the poorer without you. They might not acknowledge it, but it’s true. The company loses something valuable and unobtainable elsewhere, when they lose you. It’s foolhardy that they don’t respect that.
You’re not a light bulb, to be thrown in the bin and discarded, once burnt out.
How can you tell if you’re burning out?
I contend that most people that burn out know they are on the way to doing so, long before they reach that point, but feel they have no alternative. However, if you don’t know if you are burning out or not (you’re probably not, if you have doubt), here are some things you might notice about yourself that could be indicators that you’re on the road to a very bad place. They’re not definitive, but they can be red warning flags:
- Exhaustion – Tired all the time. While there can be many underlying reasons for feeling tired all the time, most of which require medical attention, this can be one of the red flags indicating you’re on the road to burnout. The exhaustion can be emotional, mental or physical of a combination of all three. You don’t feel like you have any energy and you’re completely spent, even when you wake. Sleep and time off no longer refresh, recharge and refuel you. When you’re badly burnt out, you can take a month off and feel more exhausted at the end of the month, than you did before you went away.
- Lack of motivation – You’ve lost your enthusiasm. You don’t feel inclined to attempt anything, anymore and you no longer have the inner drive for your work. You might describe yourself increasingly as “not a morning person” and find it harder to drag yourself into work on time, every day. The passion that fuelled you has gone.
- Frustration, cynicism and other negative emotions – You may feel like your contribution and your daily occupation doesn’t matter anymore and that you’re disillusioned with everything. You might feel more pessimistic in general than you used to. Everybody experiences negative emotions from time to time, so it’s important to note if these are becoming your predominant emotions, displacing any and all positive emotions. You find it harder to trust in things and in people. Everything seems like propaganda, even the few things that really are not (upside: you begin to sense the things that really are propaganda, veiled marketing, covert advertising, bias and slant more acutely).
- Cognitive problems – You stop being able to concentrate or pay attention. You tend to not bother to take note of things and remember them, especially stuff that seems unimportant at the time you hear it. When stressed, our attention tends to narrow to focus solely on the negative element we perceive as a threat. In the short term, this focus can help us deal with the problem at hand, but we’re only designed to operate in this mode in short bursts. Prolonged laser like focus is bad for bodies and brains and we lose the ability to pay attention to other things. Developing this chronic tunnel vision can affect your ability to solve problems, imagine, create or make decisions. You become more forgetful and have a harder time remembering things. Most of the time, you’re not paying enough attention to anything other than your primary concern to commit things to memory.
- Degraded performance on the job – If your job performance now is noticeably worse than in previous years, pay attention to that. Because burnout tends to develop over an extended period of time, long term comparisons can alert you to what could be just a temporary slump, but might be a sign of chronic burnout. You might find that tasks that took you minutes now drag out over hours. Presenteeism, where you’re putting in the extra hours at the desk, but getting little more done, is a sure sign of degraded performance on the job.
- Disengagement and interpersonal problems – At home or at work, you might find you are having more conflicts with other people, becoming more argumentative, or else you withdraw, talking to family members or co-workers less. Little things make you disproportionately angry (because it’s not actually about the little things, in reality, is it?) You might even find that although you’re physically present, you’re mentally tuned out, much of the time. Asking people to repeat things they’ve just said to you, when your hearing is fine, could be a sign of not being engaged with the people around you. People have a tendency to leave you feeling drained. Not just the people that tend to drain people, but everybody, all the time, every time. Being with people doesn’t energise you anymore.
- Neglecting yourself – When suffering from burnout, people engage in unhealthy coping strategies, like comfort eating, impulse buying, working even more, smoking or drinking too much, remaining sedentary, skipping meals frequently or not getting enough sleep. Self-medication is another issue, whether that’s through recreational drug abuse or prescription or over the counter drug use. Reaching for the sleeping pills, or just one more glass of wine at the end of the day, to de-stress, or even drinking much more coffee to summon up the energy to drag yourself into work in the morning could be telltale signs.
- Being preoccupied with work when not at work – Even though you’re not actually at your desk, at work, your mind is working overtime processing your job related issues. You’re expending mental energy constantly, mulling over your work and it interferes with your ability to recover from the stresses of the day. In your mind, you’re still right there in the middle of them. Recovery from stress requires that you stop thinking about the task when the actual task stops, or else the ghost of the task will continue to haunt and further exhaust you. Easier said than done, I know.
- Decreased satisfaction with everything – There is a tendency to feel less content and satisfied with your career, your home life, your situation and your future prospects. You might feel dissatisfaction or feel stuck with whatever is going on around you at home, in your community, with your social activities, in your country, or in the whole world. Things that brought you pleasure, in the past, now leave you feeling cold and numb. You no longer feel highs and lows, or perhaps you feel mainly mostly lows. You don’t laugh quite as much as you used to, anymore.
- Health problems – With prolonged burnout comes a suppression of the immune system and pretty soon, you’re catching every cold and flu bug that passes by. It’s like a cascading domino effect and a downward spiral. The more ground down you get, the more susceptible to real and serious health problems you become and so the less resilience you have to combat your burnout. Your bodily resources deplete just when you need them the most. You can develop digestive issues, due to chronic stress, heart disease, depression and obesity. Your tendency to skip meals and eat poorly can bring on metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. People under chronic stress, who have suppressed immune systems and eat poorly, have a higher tendency to develop cancer. All of these health problems creep up on the burnout victim, while they are busy paying too much attention to trying to succeed in their work.
What they don’t tell you about Burnout
- The root cause of Burnout is not giving up – One of the great misconceptions about burnout is that it’s due to a failing or character flaw. No. It’s because you care, you want what you do to be good and to be valued, you’re competent and productive and you dearly want to please people. What’s so bad about that? Your diligence, application, dedication, focus and concentration have been turned against you, often cynically, with malice and forethought. You have been unable to take the inhuman load placed upon you, by people that either refuse to appreciate you or don’t really care what happens to you. Your only mistake was in relentlessly trying to please them.
- There’s a lot of it about – If you began working in 1979, you are producing 40% more today than you did when you started working, but your real wages have barely increased at all. There are a lot of people that put in over three decades of effort and received very little for it. You’re not alone. Tens of millions of people would like a full time job and cannot get one and students emerge from universities and colleges with big debts and dismal job prospects. This is a recipe for widespread burnout.
- Burnout happens by design – Burnout is an inevitable consequence of the business and social culture we have created. It’s designed right into the fabric of the system we live in. Our economy is dependent upon extracting more and more from us, for no extra financial cost, every year. We work harder and get less for it, in real terms, annually, so that “growth” and “productivity improvements” can be declared. If we want a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, then some dogs will inevitably get eaten. Alive. That dog could be you. The fixation with competition, rather than collaboration, leads to toxic office politics. Some companies work to create a “sense of urgency”, which means little more than offering up outrageous stretch goals to people who are not given the means and support to achieve them. We have an entire industry of business books and gurus throwing gasoline onto the burnout fire, exalting us all to work smarter, be indispensible, go the extra mile, strive for excellence, be the top performer and fixate on work, to the exclusion of everything, so that you too can be a billionaire one day. That whole industry is a hoax. They can’t point to a single billionaire that was created due to following their advice to the letter. There is no reward waiting for you to finish your marathon work effort. The economy is organised for maximum workforce flexibility, so that employees make fewer demands on their employers, but this is just code for creating a whole class of people, called the Precariat, who are just one pay check away from disaster and who live with constant fear and insecurity and the stress that entails. We have people that dangle carrots, like bonuses and share options, in front of other people to make them give more of themselves, only to steal those incentives away, for arbitrary reasons, when the work is done. Future burnout victims work hard to help their firm succeed and grow, only to see other people make off with the money, when the company is eventually sold on. We’ve created an always-on culture, where people read their work emails in the middle of the night and feel obliged to respond to them, no matter what time of day or what other activity they were engaged in. Mobile devices can seem more like electronic tagging than a brilliant convenience.
- Art could save you – Building an enjoyable, creative life, outside of your working life, can provide the necessary relief valve for growing frustration and burnout. Art can assist you in recovering from burnout. Dancing, drawing, painting, singling, playing and even, it is claimed, masturbating, can all relieve the depression and stress that accompanies burnout.
- The is no once and for all recovery – There is no real, once and for all, done and gone forever recovery from burnout, unfortunately, because we’ve organised the world in such a way that repetitive burnout is a constant danger. It is virtually impossible to remove yourself from all the potential root causes of burnout, because they are designed into the very nature of your modern life. Even dropping out is impossible, because finding a cheap place to live has become virtually impossible. Throwing it all in and becoming a full time starving artists isn’t even viable, because the state demands that you work, that you earn, that you pay mandatory things like licenses and registrations and that you pay taxes. There is no option to opt out of it all. Increasingly, things that were provided by the state are given to private hands to provide and you must pay them, if you want healthcare, for example.
- You have to soldier on – Even if you want to stop the world and get off, you can’t. The services you need to recover from burnout have been cut back under austerity budgets and the employment laws that used to prevent burnout have been relaxed, in the name of deregulation and labour flexibility. Ultimately, you will find that as much as you ask for help, from friends, family, your employer and the medical profession, you will discover that you are alone in dealing with your burnout. You have to face it alone, work out your own avoidance and recovery strategies, for your own self protection and soldier on regardless, even when your ability to do so is at low ebb.
- Burnout is expensive – You’ll also have to figure out how to fund your own recovery. Governments are currently fixated on getting you back to work as quickly as possible, to avoid paying disability benefits, rather than ensuring you recover from burnout fully. It’s one of the reasons there is so much denial about the reality of the condition. They’d rather send you back to work than put you on disability benefits. Once you are burnt out, there is no respite. You have to press on, past the point of knowing you’re not fully ready to carry on, crawling on hands and feet, if necessary. That’s just how we’ve organised ourselves, politically.
- Burnout is contagious – If you burn out, it will affect your wife and kids. They’ll be prone to burnout too, as they shoulder the load that you can no longer carry and as you withdraw from family life, as a consequence of your burnout. It will cause a cascade of physical, emotional and mental problems in yourself and those around you, when you burn out. Burnout is best avoided, even though it’s very difficult to avoid.
- Burnout can kill – Once the cascade of health problems caused by burnout gathers momentum, you can find that you’re at serious risk of dying. Obesity and addictions claim people at an alarming rate and both are predictable side effects of burnout. The Germans call midriff bulges what translates into “grief bacon”. You put on weight around your abdomen because you are unhappy. Weight around your torso puts excessive strain on your vital organs (heart, liver, kidneys). Once problems develop with those life supporting systems in your body, you can be in real trouble.
- Sleep stops working – When you can get to sleep, it’s usually at the point of exhaustion only. You sleep fitfully, you sleep a lot of hours, but the quality of your sleep is exceedingly poor. If you are prone to obesity, mostly through snacking on chocolate bars, sweetened “low fat” foods and soft drinks, you may even develop a sleep disorder like sleep apnoea, which if untreated, can kill you very quickly (either your heart gives out or you fall asleep at the wheel). When you sleep, you don’t rest and you don’t wake up rested. You wake up wanting to go back to sleep again. For as much sleep as you can get, it never seems to do the trick. Staying awake, staying up later to do your work and bouts of stress-induced insomnia just make everything even worse.
- Burnout amplifies disappointments – When you are depleted, emotionally and physically, things that disappointed you, in the past or in the present, take on a larger significance and affect you more, than when you are not burnt out. Beware of overinflating the magnitude and impact of disappointments, when in burnout, because your perceptions will be distorted to amplify the disappointment. It’s not real. You’re not thinking straight.
- Recovery is really difficult – It’s really hard to get back up on your feet, when you’ve had your legs cut out from under you. Don’t underestimate how hard and long you will have to work at recovering from burnout. You can burnout all over again, just by working too hard at trying to recover from burnout. It’s a serious challenge that is going to take a lot of effort, so you have to be realistic about the rate of improvement you can accomplish, once you burn out.
- Success gets harder to believe in – The root cause of burnout is often the lack of success for all the hard work. That being the case, believing you can succeed, even in an entirely different field or with entirely different success criteria, can be hard to do. You just don’t buy into the “work hard, be a success” mantra anymore, because you have proof to the contrary. You know that there is something beside hard work involved in succeeding. You also see people that, by some definition, have succeeded, but who are so burnt out from getting there, that you no longer see success as a valid goal. It’s too costly. You no longer find the concept of success as motivating.
- Finding sanctuary will be essential, but resented – You might find that you’ll spend a lot more time in your man cave, or reading alone quietly, when you’re recovering from burnout, but very little will get done in there. That’s ok. It’s a sanctuary where healing and recovery can take root and that’s what’s getting done. However, your withdrawal from your family and loved ones, into your solitary man cave, means that you will be exacerbating the sense of being cut off from them, so that will have a negative impact on you and on them. You have to balance time spent in your retreat with normal life very carefully, even though your retreat is where you get better fastest.
- You will let a lot of people down – If you have never been good at saying “no” to requests made of you, you will find that when you burn out, you won’t have the ability to make good on your commitments. You’ll let people down simply because you won’t be capable of doing otherwise. In letting others down, you will feel that you have let yourself down too and you will feel worse, because of that. However, accept that your previous willingness to say “yes” was unrealistic and do your best to let people down gently, if you can. There is no point in beating yourself up for the eagerness that got you into this unfortunate state in the first place.
- It’s a downward spiral – The more burnt out you get, the more you will be in danger of burning out again, the moment you attempt to solve your burn out issues and recover. In other words, recovery is precarious and the more burnt out you are, the harder it is to address the causes of your burn out, without making your burnout symptoms even worse. You have to build slowly and carefully. Setbacks in your recovery are more prevalent, when you are very burnt out. It’s only when you begin to make serious progress in recovering from your burn out that you can start to gather some momentum.
- You won’t remember a lot about your life – When you are in full blown burnout, you stop paying attention to the world you’re in and to your place within it, so your short term memory falls to pieces (phone numbers become hard to recite and recall) and people will come up to you years after your burnout phase, reminding you about events that you were present at, but of which you have absolutely no memory recall. Your ability to form such memories was shut down at the time. This can be quite upsetting, especially for those that want to share a memory with you, because it was significant to them, but unnoticed by you. You will be saddened that you cannot remember a lot of the small things about your children’s childhood and development, as much as you may want to, once recovered from burnout. It doesn’t mean you’ve gone mad or senile, it just means you were too stressed to pay enough attention to create the memories in your brain for later retention and recall. You just weren’t there, in mind. You were too tuned out. That in itself is very sad and is yet another reason why burnout is so serious, even though not given enough attention in society.
- You will be judged – The world is full of miserable, merciless, judgemental people that lack compassion, unfortunately and many of these will pass judgement on you, in your state of abject burnout. They can’t help it. They’re prejudiced assholes. They will say you were weak, that you’re washed up, worthless, that you will never work again, that you’re incompetent, lazy, disorganised, undisciplined, lacking in character, that you don’t care about anybody except yourself, that you are not tough enough, too emotional, flawed or mentally ill. They’ll tell you to just get over it, man up and that you’re making a big deal over nothing. These people will offer you no place in their organisation or social group. They’ll exclude you. These people are, of course, wrong. You became a burn out case because you were strong, capable, willing to work, hard working, caring, too willing to please others and immensely able. That counts as nothing to the prejudiced, but what do you care what the prejudiced think?
- They’ll tell you you’re burnt out because you like it that way – People will think that because you are in this burnt out state that you like to be in this state and so treat you as a malingering whiner, deserving only of contempt and of being shunned or castigated, instead of a victim deserving of compassion and a little mercy. They will mistake the length of time you endure burn out and its slow recovery phase with a desire to stay in burn out. If they had tried it themselves, they wouldn’t think that. Their attitude is born of ignorance and an inability to empathise with people in situations other than their own.
- Recovery requires thought and energy – Just when you think you haven’t any left, you will discover that your road to recovery will require solutions to your situation and that finding those solutions will require a lot of thinking and energetic work. Neither will be easy to muster, whilst burnt out.
- Well meaning people will make it worse, while trying to help – They just will. Forgive them. Their hearts are in the right place. They just don’t know how to really help. But they’re trying their best. These are your allies, even though they cause extra hurt and setbacks.
- Inexhaustible reserves of inner strength are not –People will tell you to fall back onto your inexhaustible reserves of inner strength to recover from burn out and while that works, up to a point, your reserves are, I’m afraid, exhaustible. They really are. You can reach that point of having an empty tank mighty quickly, while toughing it out and soldiering on. Draw down on your inner reserves of strength and personal resources strategically and carefully. They are not inexhaustible.
- The drugs don’t work- They just make it worse. The song is right. Taking anti-depressants might feel like relief from stress and that could be crucial in a crisis, but all it does it defer the inevitable day when you have to take action to correct your situation and in delaying it, the problem can become much harder to solve. It is known that self-medication rarely works, in cases of burnout. There is scant evidence that doctor-prescribed medication has any other effect. They might be good in a crisis, but if the prescription medicines only cause you to defer finding your solution, then recovery will merely be delayed indefinitely and things could even get worse. I don’t know why doctors fail to understand this.
- Private individuals and enterprises will still demand money from you with menaces and threats – Even though you might be completely exhausted and in danger or perishing, companies and people that feel you owe them money will think nothing of putting their repayment demands ahead of your right to life. We are so programmed to believe in debt obligations and the dishonour of paying late, that we are willing to harm the already harmed, in order to satisfy an arbitrary financial demand. Nobody will provide food, warmth and shelter for you for free. Everybody will want paying, even when your capacity to earn is severely (if temporarily) compromised.
- Your government will demand money from you, too – The people you elected to take care of the vulnerable and to provide a secure environment for all to live in will demand that you pay council taxes, bus fares, water metered rates and so on. They will tell you to get a job, even if you are at the lowest point in your burnout episode and close to suicide. Your government will make it a condition of continuing to pay you a below-subsistence pittance that you show up at job centres, bright an early, to be coached in finding nonexistent or unsuitable employment. They will hand you over to the hands of exploiters that will require you to do a job way below your qualifications and skill level, for minimum wages, just so that they can get you off the unemployment statistics. The government and its agencies do not care about your health or well being, or finding you a position that will avoid burning you out all over again. They don’t care how burnt out you are or even if you are burnt out. The question appears on none of their forms. Often, the work they find for you only makes your burnout worse.
- You can’t keep letting things slide – In the name of self-preservation, part of your burnout recovery may involve forgetting about having to do some things for a while, like home maintenance, tending the garden, mowing the lawn, tidying up, washing the dishes, etc. You practice letting things go by letting these things go. Unfortunately, you can’t let these things slide indefinitely, because they only come back to bite you with a vengeance, later, anyway. It might take a supreme effort to wash your socks, but not washing them is ultimately worse. You’ll also be setting a bad example for your kids.
- It’s a private hell – People who haven’t lived through it cannot and don’t want to understand it. If you’ve never burnt out, you can’t possibly understand the cascade of stages and symptoms described earlier. Most people don’t want to understand them, for fear of being the next to succumb to the contagion.
- You will be treated as disposable – Even though you’d like to believe you’re special and unique (and you really are), people that you relied on will simply bin you and get another one, regardless. To them, you’re considered replaceable, inconvenient, a commodity and not in any way precious. Even though you’re really none of those things.
- You’ll be changed irrevocably – You’re never the same again, after burnout, even if you recover, because you can see the hoaxes that fooled you into getting to burnout and you fear falling down into the black hole again. Consequently, you’ll avoid big projects and commitments almost viscerally. It’s a bit like having PTSD, only with a gradual cause, not a single, vivid incident. Once you have burnt out, you can never see the world or the people in it in quite the same naive way, ever again. Your wariness will be heightened.
- Go at your own pace – When dealing with burnout and its aftermath, the best thing to do is to pace yourself, try to care for yourself diligently, create and do things that can’t help but make you smile and feel happy, but without burning out over the need to make it count and to pay back quickly. The most important thing you can give yourself is time to heal.
- People will give you more things to do – People who notice that you aren’t working at quite the same frenetic pace that you used to, because you can’t, will take this as a sign that you have spare capacity, not that you are burnt out and so will give you extra tasks to do, to fill your plate. They might be small, insignificant, menial tasks that would ordinarily have taken you a few seconds or minutes, but in a place where you are already abandoning major commitments and feeling bad about it, through sheer exhaustion, adding more tasks to do will just drive you into deeper burnout. When two burnt out people start offloading tasks onto each other, it becomes farcical.
- People who are not burnt out will go at your reduced pace – Even though the people around you, who are in your team at work or who just interact with you a lot, are not themselves burnt out, they will see that you are throttling back and figure that if you are working at things with less pace, then they will do so too. Consequently, instead of somebody else taking up the slack and doing the tasks you are too exhausted to do; those tasks will remain undone, because everybody tapers back their effort. This might be because they see the consequences of trying too hard in you and they don’t want to emulate your burnout, or else because they have always expected you to take the lead and the load and they will wait it out until you can do so again. For the burnt out person, all they can see is that the things that used to get done, by them, are no longer getting done and it will act as a silent pressure to pick these tasks up. In a state of burnout, having pressure to do more work is counterproductive and just makes the burnout worse.
- Burnout can change you for the better – Finding yourself in burnout can be a chance to rediscover yourself, redefine your priorities in life and shine brightly once again. It can be the start of reigniting your flame, finding your passion and bliss and it can open the next chapter of your life – the one where you do what you love, love what you do, succeed at it and get the rewards, recognition and respect you deserve for having made those radical changes to your life.
Coping with Burnout
You shouldn’t have to cope with burnout. It shouldn’t happen to you. Your desire to please and all your sustained effort should not be met with rejection and failure. It shouldn’t be your problem to solve alone. But it is and so you must.
Here’s how to get what you need from a world that wants only what it wants. None of this will help you recover from burnout or prevent it. All it will do is allow you to live long enough to regroup and find a way forward. Coping strategies are holding patterns. Nothing gets better, but nothing gets worse either, in theory. First you must cope, before you can recover.
The most effective strategy for coping with burnout is rest, even when rest doesn’t work. It works eventually. This could involve a temporary reduction in working hours, working from home or another office location, or time away.
Most coping strategies commonly recommended are from the organisation’s point of view, so that they can rebuild the endurance of the individual (presumably so that they can burn him out all over again, or else teach him to accept the unacceptable, rather than reassess the organisation and institute burnout avoidance practices).
The organisation wants you to carry the same load you used to carry, by default, however extreme that used to be. You might be better off reassessing what you are doing with your life and do something else. Your interests might not be aligned with those of your organisation, in helping you cope with burnout.
It has to be said that employee assistance programmes, stress management training and stress interventions all start from the assumption that the individual has to change (i.e. learn to cope with the extreme stresses that burnt them out) rather than the organisation needing to change (to set more reasonable expectations of employees). Problem based coping, appraisal based coping and social support all make the assumption that the organisation is fine and healthy, making reasonable demands of its people and that the population of employees that burn out weren’t fit for purpose. This is nonsense. Your workplace might simply be toxic. Their ethics and mission, their values and what they stand for might be diametrically opposed to your own and this irresolvable conflict could be the source of your burnout. Your work might lack conscionable purpose.
That said, here are some coping strategies that might work for you:
- Take relaxation seriously – It’s not optional. The time you spend listening to music, reading a book, chatting to friends, walking or spending time with your family is crucially important and plays a very real role in maintaining your productivity. Employers that do not understand this or do not wish to understand it, who expect their employees to drop everything in order to do extra work for them at any moment, are greedy and must be trained. It really isn’t in their best interests to burn you out, however tempting the short term gains might appear. Plan your relaxation and designate time for it. Don’t compromise on your relaxation commitments.
- Cultivate a rich non-work life – Portfolio careers are interesting, because they allow you to change your work, if your work is burning you out. Similarly, finding something outside of work that you are passionate about, that is challenging, engaging, absorbing and really gets you going, whether a hobby (e.g. learning to paint), sports or fitness activities, volunteering in the community or something else that gives you a rewarding experience, can be a good burnout coping strategy. An interest that is unrelated to work activities, which is immersive enough to make you forget work entirely, if only for a while, can be a very good way of holding burnout at bay. It won’t prevent burnout, but it can defer it. Don’t forget that your hobby takes energy and concentration too, so you will feel the cumulative exhaustion of maintaining your hobby and your burnout prone career.
- Unplug – Turn the laptop, tablet or mobile phone off. Especially during family time, vacations and social activities. Your phone should be face down at dinner and the first to answer a call should have to pay the bill. Strictly delegate certain times to check email and be disciplined about turning the email off, when the allocated time is up. Take a vacation in a place where network access is non-existent or outrageously expensive.
- Get enough sleep – If you think you might not be getting enough sleep, you aren’t. There are apps available that can monitor your sleep patterns (but remember to not answer the phone or email, if you use such an app!), so that you can keep your sleep hygiene honest. You need a minimum of six hours of sleep a night and the sleep quality has to be reasonably good, or you don’t get the benefit of the hours. Fatigue can increase your sensitivity to stressful events, impair your cognitive functions, cause decisions to be harder and slower to make, leave you prone to errors, reduce your ability to cope with competing demands that you must juggle and decrease your motivation all by itself, so don’t let a lack of sleep become the thin edge of the burnout wedge. The reverse is also true. If you are refreshed, you perform better in all of these cognitive aspects. Try to sleep, even when you can’t sleep and if you find yourself falling asleep unexpectedly and are in a position to enjoy the rest, then sleep whenever sleep takes you. Try to sleep a little more than you think you need. Sleep cannot be beaten and there is no substitute. Incidentally, companies that keep you on frequent long haul flights into different time zones, who expect you to work on the plane and when jet lagged, who ask you to pull all nighters to make the release deadline and who have an on call system that permits you to be woken in the middle of the night to fix their servers are all adding to your burnout risk. They’re actively sabotaging your efforts to cope with burnout. Robbing you of sleep is not very different to starving you of food or oxygen, physiologically. They use sleep deprivation as a torture technique, in less enlightened countries.
- Get organised – Something that can add to your stress and make your burnout worse is being disorganised. The idea that you’ll forget to do something important of something will fall through the cracks is crazy making. Clear your head and put together a “to do” list and then prioritise it. Put some things in the “never going to happen” category and forget about them for good. Don’t make a very long list, or that just adds to the burnout and feelings of hopelessness. If you have a calendar app, get it to send you reminders for really important things. Deal with email as soon as you can, in batches, not continuously, as they arrive and only handle each mail item once. Act on it, bin it, or file it for action on a specific date. Most of your email should find its way to the bin, frankly. There are some items in your inbox that you shouldn’t even open, just bin. By the way, a valid way of acting on an email includes politely saying no to the request in the email. Clear your clutter. Make space on your desk.
- Notice how you feel – Your body is good at sending you warning messages. Stress manifests itself as more frequent headaches, tight shoulders, a stiff neck, stomach upsets, cravings for coffee or sugary foods, and so on. Pay attention to these early warning signs and rest. Burnout can worsen depression, but depression can also make you prone to burnout. If your symptoms are simply persisting and getting worse, you might need to do more than simply try to cope with burnout. You might need counselling, professional help or a psychologist, to help you solve your serious struggle. They seldom tell you to change your entire working life, but sometimes that is the best and only answer.
- Know when it’s you, or when it’s them – Sometimes your burnout is due to internal factors, but other times, it’s really a symptom of external ones. If you can figure out what’s burning you out and where it’s coming from, you can begin to address it. When you figure out that it’s them, not you, then you can find strategies to produce your best, most meaningful work, even in amongst the craziness, and maintain reasonable function and productivity, despite the stresses. Any time your workplace is downsizing, has a hiring freeze, is reducing benefits, or deferring pay rises, you know they are demanding more from fewer and that they are intending to burn their employees out, rather than staff at the required level. You may become a balance sheet casualty. What a waste of a perfectly good human being! Those prone to burnout are the ones that often knuckle down and try to save the firm, in its difficult times, by sacrificing their own well being to produce more with less, in the hope of jam tomorrow. They’ll never thank you. If they can abuse you now, when the chips are down, they’ll feel no compulsion to treat you better, when times are good. In reality, downsizing is a sure sign that you should decide whether it’s time to move on and whether what you are getting for working for that particular organisation meets your needs. For one thing, the added job insecurity of working for a firm that has already had to downsize and could have to do so again, at any moment, will worsen your stress load. Working under a sword of Damocles, year after year, is a sure way to burn out. You are under no obligation to suffer loyally, if the loyalty doesn’t cut both ways, despite what they tell you.
- Draw the line – Although a dialogue with an employer might produce some help and coping strategies, I reiterate that their assumption is almost always that the employee suffering from stress must learn to deal with it, not that the organisation should cut it out. If, no matter what you try to do, the organisation is unwilling or unable to make those changes to reduce the stresses they place upon you, then it is simply time to move on. Draw the line and refuse to cross it. Figure out when enough is enough.
Recovering from Burnout
As was already said, you never really do recover fully, but you can make improvements that make life liveable. There is no instant cure and recovery is by degrees, with occasional setbacks, that can take a long time to achieve. A period of three or four years is not an outrageous expectation, though you might begin to function much better after six months to a year. If you keep getting repeatedly burnt out, you might bounce along the bottom, trying to recover from burnout, over the course of more than a decade (assuming your health doesn’t give out first). You might never fully recover, but you may find yourself in a much better place than you were at your crisis point.
Here are some things that might help you recover from burnout:
- Tell someone – It seems self evident, but the first step toward recovery is acknowledging you are in trouble. Telling somebody about your burnout is a good way to start the recovery process, because it is making you accountable for doing something about it and you might get some understanding and sympathy from the person you tell. Admitting you are burnt out to somebody else is the best way to admit it to yourself.
- Get help, but don’t expect miracles – It’s exceedingly difficult to recover from burnout on your own. Counselling is worthwhile, but bear in mind that nobody can solve your situation for you. They can act as a sounding board and get you past some of the things within yourself that are preventing you from moving forward, however. A life coach is perhaps a good option. If you have health issues and a sympathetic GP, then talking to your doctor is a good idea.
- Keep your true friends close – When you burn out, some of your friends will vanish. They won’t want to help you get past burnout. In truth, they were only ever your fair weather friends. However, the friends that stick by you are wonderful human beings that will lift your spirits when you are low and just be there for you, when you are struggling. True friends can keep your head above the water. True friends are precious. Being with them will help you get past burnout.
- If spirituality is your thing, lean into it – If faith, prayer and religion are important to you, seeking strength through your faith can help you recover from burnout. Fellowship can also be sustaining.
- Rest deliberately and with purpose – If you feel you need ten hours of sleep a night, or three weeks away from everything, then do it. That would be my advice. If you are not making any headway where you are, because you are burnt out, then the sooner you can recharge even a small amount of your batteries, the more prepared you will be to build some recovery momentum. Take your rest seriously. Recovery starts here. Plan your rest and take it. Don’t let this slide.
- Exercise – Even if you previously worked exercise all the way out of your life and you are so unfit that physical exertion is a strain, go for a walk, potter around the garden, do something minor but physical. Like the burnout itself, working your way back to physical activity is a slow, tentative process, but the more you achieve, the more you are able to do next time. Building this physical activity little by little is the key to making your whole body feel less exhausted, but take it slow and check for physical health issues (such as heart and circulation issues) before you go crazy with exercise. A little, regularly, is more valuable than a burst of activity that causes you pain or injury and puts you off trying again. You need to address your physical exhaustion as well as your emotional and mental fatigue and a healthier body supports your brain and its need to heal.
- Sleep well – Address the quality of your sleep. Get comfortable. Get a new pillow. If your mattress is worn out, replace it. Do you breathe well and is the room at a comfortable temperature? Pay attention to your sleep environment. Turn off unnecessary lights and don’t stay up late staring at screens. Develop a wind down routine that helps prepare your mind and body for sleep. Sleep is important, you’re going to need more of it than usual, during recovery and you want every hour you sleep to have the desired restorative effect. Naps are also recommended. Sleep whenever your body tells you it has a need to sleep, wherever that is possible.
- Distract yourself from the pain – When you are burnt out, all you can seem to focus on is the hurt of being burnt out and the daunting task ahead of you to recover from it. It is also likely that you will be replaying incidents that contributed to your burn out, reliving the pain and feeling the injustice and hurt keenly, over and over again. You have to stop doing that. You can’t fixate on the pain you have now, or undo the past. The best idea is to just distract yourself from thinking about it, until you are able to face it like some distant, bystander and not the person that was wounded. The pain happened, it is and was real, but it won’t serve you to keep picking at it and reopening old wounds. Do something, anything, which prevents you from dwelling on the pain.
- Do what you can – When you first start recovering from burnout, you will be tempted to go back to what you used to do, or some new project and discover you just don’t have the stamina to do it. You’re still quite exhausted, even though you might be feeling slightly better. Don’t worry. Do what you can. Take some pride in the achievement of even small tasks and build gradually from there. You won’t be able to throw yourself into something new like a dynamo. It’s impossible. You certainly won’t be able to go back to your previous situation and carry on as if nothing had happened. You’re going to have to build up your ability to do things, especially things you love to do, gradually.
- Don’t do anything drastic or stupid – When you’re burnt out, you can be tempted to do things that can ruin your life. You’re not thinking straight and there is a temptation to trash everything, through a deliberate act of rebellion, or else because you really haven’t thought things through rationally. Now is not the time to do anything rash, stupid or irresponsible. It might be tempting to simply abandon everything and run away, or do yourself some permanent harm, but that’s not the answer. That’s not how your recovery will bring you to a place where you can shine once again. Think hard before you do anything drastic or stupid. Then, don’t do it. Any day you get through where something terrible doesn’t happen is a good day. Be extra careful when driving. If you are distracted and exhausted, you aren’t going to be making good decisions or have sharp reactions. Drive knowing that you’re not as aware and able as you might have been.
- Learn to trust again – If you’re a typical burn out case, you will have been betrayed and let down by other people, during your descent into burnout. Breaches of trust might be a significant causal factor in your burnout. It might be tempting to simply never trust anybody ever again, but you can’t live that way. Most people are trustworthy and you need to develop that trust again, to have hope. Learning to put your trust in others might be hard, but you need to do it in order to recover fully.
- Balance your solitude and sociability – Recovery will require that you find time to be alone, but also spend time with other people. Too much of one or the other will hinder your progress. Balancing your need for solitude with your need for gregarious sociability is important. You have to know when to hide away and when to put yourself out there.
- Be vigilant for the warning signs of recurrent burnout – While you’re still recovering from burnout, it is so easy to burn out again. Watch for the symptoms and signs, outlined earlier, that indicate you’re going backward, regressing toward total exhaustion, rather than steadily improving. Trying to do too much or finding yourself in another demanding situation, or a reprise of the one that burnt you out in the first place, will simply burn you out some more. You have to monitor yourself for signs that you’re getting more exhausted, rather than less.
- Take responsibility for your health and wellbeing – It’s your mind and body. Nobody else can ensure you rest, eat well, exercise and rejuvenate your mind and body. That’s up to you. Take the role on and make it a priority. Take the responsibility seriously. Love. Laugh. Maintain friendships. Do things that nourish your soul. It’s the only vehicle you have, while you’re here on earth and it has to go the distance.
- Believe that there is hope – While you are recovering from burnout, you can lose sight of the fact that you will ever be in a state where you can shine and enjoy life again. You can’t comprehend the opportunities and good things that might lie in your future. It’s important to believe that a better life than your current one is possible, that good things can come your way and that you’ll be recovered enough to do meaningful, fulfilling things that light up the sparkle in your eyes. Others have made it. You can make it. You might never fully recover or be the same ever again, but the rest of your life could yet be grand.
- Be patient – If you are the typical overachiever that succumbs to burnout, you won’t want to spend a moment longer than you have to in recovery. You will want to get back to being a shining light as soon as possible. Don’t rush it. Give yourself time. You won’t get over it overnight. You didn’t burn out that quickly. It probably happened to you over a period of years. Recovery is going to take some time too.
- Accept the apology you were never given – People might have hurt you and wronged you and they may have never expressed regret or remorse for the harm they have done to you. That sucks. However, you cannot remain bitter about it. History cannot be unwritten and waiting for an eventual apology might take a very long time, if your harmer is hard hearted or insouciant. Far better to accept the apology, as if it had been given, even though it hasn’t and simply move on. Forgive them if for no other reason than to forgive yourself for falling prey to them.
- Slow down – People that burn out often continue to rush about and think at a million miles per hour, even when utterly exhausted. You see them rushing through meals, anxiously banging their steering wheels in the traffic, watching the clock to ensure they’re going to arrive on time, shaving and brushing their teeth in a hurried way or walking at a brisk pace staring straight ahead, rather than strolling and taking in the scenery. Slow down. Take your time. Spend a few extra minutes in the bathroom in the morning, preparing for the day at your leisure. Bath instead of shower. Be less hysterical about punctuality. Adopt an “I’ll get there when I get there and when I am good and ready” attitude. Stop cutting your personal time to ribbons to compensate for the traffic by leaving earlier and earlier. If people value you, they’ll understand your need to take things a little more calmly. If they don’t, then you’ve flushed them out and you don’t need them in your life. To quote Steven Covey, “Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things”.
- Take a stress inventory (Why are you burnt out?) – When you first reach burnout, you might not understand how it happened and how you got to this point, in your life. You may have been studiously ignoring the things that were stressing you most and simply grinning and bearing it. To recover from burnout, it is important to take an inventory of the situations that caused you to feel stressed, anxious, worried, frustrated, trapped, helpless, unappreciated or insulted. It can take some time to compile this list, as bringing each situation to mind will cause you stress, just because you’re thinking about it. You can add to this list as you recover. You don’t have to complete it in one go, or ever finish the list. It’s just a way to take control of those situations that burn you out the most, with a view to taking incremental corrective actions. Sometimes, it’s better to not deliberately make a list, but to simply note down situations that occur to you, when they come to mind, as they inevitably will, when replaying the horrors that lead to your burnout. These situations seem to haunt you and come to mind when least welcome, so turn that around by noting them on your list and forgetting about them. Use the list as a way to download the recalled incidents and thereby clear them from your mind for a while.
- Work on ways to modify each stressor – Once you have a list, it’s possible to begin thinking about how to reduce the stress in each situation and writing that down next to each entry. After that, begin to incorporate your stress reduction solutions into your everyday routine, when you encounter these stressful situations. The “thinking about solutions” part adds to your load, when you’re already exhausted, so take that slowly. Just like writing the stressor down, thinking about solutions will also bring the horror back to your mind and you’ll feel the stress all over again, even though you’re feeling it to try to solve it, this time. Still, the fact that you will have brought it to mind again will take something out of you. Be prepared to feel depleted by doing so. Also, implementing the changes will take some courage and determination and making the changes stick will be difficult. You probably won’t get immediate results, but each increment matters and if you can accumulate some small wins, then it begins to reduce your aggregate stress loading significantly. This is a long term project.
- Just say “no” – While you’re recovering, avoid taking on any new commitments or responsibilities. Your plate is already demonstrably overloaded. In the real world, it won’t always be possible to say “no”, but burnout victims tend to have a very bad habit of always saying “yes”, which is one of the reasons they burnt out in the first place. Resist the urge to please and politely decline to take anything more on.
- Delegate more – Hand off as many of your tasks as you can, even if the person you hand them off to is not as fast or as competent at doing them as you might have once been. You need to reduce your load and clear your plate. It’s imperative. Don’t hand your tasks to somebody equally burnt out, though.
- Take breaks between big projects – Big projects are demanding. They are stressful and time-consuming, not to mention prolonged. It’s a good idea to have a gap between them, so that your mind and body have a chance to recover. If you jump from one big project into another, immediately, you are simply treating your mind and body as if you were in one gigantic project, made from two big projects, joined end to end. The bigger the project, the more the burnout risk. It seems to be an exponential (or more correctly, geometric) relationship. A project that is twice as big seems to take four times as much out of you.
- Take a vacation or leave of absence – Sometimes you need distance between yourself and the situation that is causing your burnout. Removing yourself from the immediate vicinity of the cause is a good strategy for recovery. It gives you the distance and space to rest, recuperate, de-stress and relax. Granted, the work might all be waiting for you when you get back, but you might be able to rest enough to make the mountain of work something you can face.
- Learn new skills or arts – Not only does learning a new skill distract you from thinking about the things that burnt you out, but it makes you more valuable in other work scenarios, so by learning something new, you are giving yourself options. You can leave your field of endeavour and do something else entirely – something more satisfactory. The caveat is to learn something that you enjoy doing and not to pursue it with such intensity that you burn out over it.
- Listen to music – Whether you make music your daily sonic wallpaper, which is just there, but you don’t pay much attention to it, or you choose to listen to music actively and attentively, in an almost ceremonial way, music can help you recover from burnout. It distracts, soothes and moves you. It can exercise tired emotions and remedy fatigue, fighting the jaded, cynical, numb feelings that may have accumulated as you burnt out. Music can reach your exhausted emotions, when other things can’t.
- Learn to enjoy stillness, darkness and silence – Some of the most restful experiences a human being can have are just sitting still, quietly, in a room or outdoors, being in total or partial darkness or finding a place of silence to sit and quietly absorb the aural nothingness. These experiences can heighten your senses and serve to revive tired emotions. Like a blank sheet of paper, it encourages your mind to be still and to erase or calm the constant, noisy recall of stressful events and situations. Scented gardens and pleasant aromas are another great antidote to burnout, because they let your tired mind, eyes and ears have a rest, while your less frequently abused and overworked olfactory senses take over. Just sipping coffee slowly in a coffee shop or smelling fresh bread in a bakery can lift your mood and quiet the stresses. People-watching is also recommended as a way of forgetting your stresses for a while.
- Tame your devices – Computers, iPads, smart phones, television, games consoles and the like can consume large amounts of your time, concentration and energy. Turn them off. Don’t let your technology hijack your life. Have times of the day where you simply ignore them.
- Socialise outside your professional group – Hanging out with people that do things completely unrelated to what you do can be a way to find fresh perspectives, stimulate new ideas and help you discover previously undiscovered resources. It also provides some perspective and can even lead to new fields of endeavour. It’s a good thing to do, to aid your recovery from burnout.
- Leave work at work – Don’t take your work home. If there is too much work to do and it’s not getting done in office hours, then that’s the fault of the under-resourced firm you work for, not your responsibility alone. There can always be too much work. Work expands to fill the voids. If you let work expand into your home life, you won’t have a home life. Sure, the boss demands that the work gets done on time, but what’s to say that the boss has asked for a reasonable, not extreme, amount of work to be done in the time available? How do you know the deadline isn’t wholly arbitrary? Who else are they going to get to do it, anyway? Don’t be conned into working all hours, just so that the firm is enriched by not having to pay for the additional resources they really need.
- Take pride in effort, not outcome – No sports star can hit a home run, score the winning goal or come first in a race, every time. Your responsibility is simply to maintain your performance, not win every time. Nobody can. It’s ridiculous to expect that of yourself. Learn to value and appreciate the effort you put in, irrespective of the outcome. The outcome might not be in your hands to control and typically isn’t.
- Consider a support group – Although support groups tend to be therapeutic, they don’t have to be. It can be a professional organisation that provides support and mentoring or a group of casual friends getting together for “wine and whine”, where they can vent and share ideas. Sharing your feelings often helps to reduce stress and getting together with people reduces the isolation and social disconnectedness, which is a common consequence of burnout.
- Reassess your goals – Why did you embark on this line of work in the first place? Is it still in line with your values and mission? Do you have a mission? It is worth thinking about what is important and what matters to you and then to question whether the work that has burnt you out is aligned with those goals and values. Usually, the work is misaligned and this is the source of the problem. You may have compromised, for expediency and found yourself in a line of work that is corrosive and at odds with what you are all about as a human being. It may be able to change your responsibilities and craft your role, within your current work context, to make the work more satisfactory to you. However, if you can’t, you must move on. If you simply recover from burnout, just to go back to an unsatisfactory job, role or work environment, you will simply burn out again and all the effort you will have put into recovery will have been for nothing.
- Practice positive thinking – Walking around with a false smile plastered on your face, with a belligerent attitude toward negativity and anybody experiencing negative emotions won’t help you. That’s fake. What can help you, though, are the choices you make about how you approach issues and your attitude to difficulties and frustrations. A little practice in positive thinking, so that you reassess how you react to situations, can be a very helpful thing. It’s also helpful to quiet the negative self talk that repeats inside your head, telling you that you have failed and are worthless for having burnt out. That inner critic is way too harsh. You are not a failure; you simply tried far too hard to please. Casting thoughts in a more positive light can actually be more realistic than less, objectively speaking. You’re not as bad as you think you are, generally. Things might feel like they are getting worse for you, while you are in the depths of burnout, but things could also get very much better for you, once you recover from burnout. That possibility is hard to grasp onto, while you are burnt out, but it happens to be true.
- Let some things go – At some point, the chronic, manic overachiever that wants to accomplish everything has to face the fact that they can think of far more things they want to do than they can ever possibly do. Trying to do them all is a reason why some burn out. If you have a long bucket list, it might be wise to take a more realistic view about your capacity to do it all and simply cross some things off. Let them go. You might never have the time and energy to become everything you would ideally like to be, or to do everything you want to do. It’s ok. You don’t have to. Desire easily outpaces capacity. It’s a mistake to let desire rule you. All you have to do is the best with whatever capacity for accomplishment you have.
- Rediscover your passion (and do that instead) – Most burnout victims lose sight of the thing that fires them up, excites them and makes their eyes sparkle. It’s one of the symptoms of burnout. Rediscovering your passion (or finding a new one) with a new self-awareness that it doesn’t have to be an all-consuming thing, can be the spark that reignites your flame. You might have to redefine your roles at work, home or both. You might have to redistribute the load you are carrying. You might even have to give up an old passion and find a new one that gives your life a better balance. My advice is that if you discover your passion, you should pursue it. It’s the thing that gives you the most satisfaction and meaning. You should spend your time doing that.
Nobody can change you, only you can change you, so you need to figure out a way to help yourself to do that. Enlist help, but don’t imagine they can make the changes you need to make for you. Getting help is important, but all they can possibly offer is short term comfort or avoidance tactics. Nobody can solve your issue for you. You have to find a way to go away and heal, without the demands continually swamping you. Nobody can grant you peace. You’ll have to find it for yourself.
Doctors will be reluctant to sign you off and your government will be unwilling to support your recovery financially. It costs them too much money and money is all that seems to matter to governments, these days. In fact, governments around the world are currently in a frenzy of throwing those unable to work back into work, rather than being more compassionate and having concern for their long term well being.
If your life implodes in the mean time, during your recovery from burnout, then maybe that’s still preferable to ceasing to exist. This is a very real possible outcome, with burnout. Make no mistake about it. People will die from burnout and it will still remain an unrecognised condition, because it flies in the face of the mythical, dream ideology of the self-made, successful man, with infinite capacity for work. I think it’s time we reassessed the myth, as a society.
Far better than experiencing and then recovering from burnout is avoiding burnout altogether. This is by far the healthiest and least expensive option for society as a whole and for each individual. We should not accept a continual stream of casualties and long rehabilitations, when with some care we can organise things so that people never burn out.
- Work with purpose – There has to be some higher purpose to how you spend your time on Earth than simply earning a pay check. The pay check becomes increasingly meaningless when the work your only do for the money expands to invade your every waking hour and even your sleep. As in the notes on recovery, above, having goals, values and a mission and ensuring that your work is in alignment with them is not only a way to get over burnout, it’s a way to avoid it entirely.
- Perform a job analysis (is it doable?) – Is the job you’re doing something that can be reasonably asked from a single human being? Do you have a monster of a boss that continually overloads you and makes you jump to arbitrary deadlines? Are you given conflicting demands, or asked to prioritise, when all requests have equal urgency and importance? Do priorities change too frequently? Is there a fire to fight, every day? Do they expect too much of you? Are you treated with courtesy, care and respect or are you constantly denigrated and demoralised? Are you provided with all the resources you need to succeed at the tasks you are given? Are you compensating for under-performers or unreliable, unskilled people by taking on their tasks too? Are you frequently asked to donate personal time, to take one for the team? Perhaps this isn’t the job for you. If you can’t delegate some of your workload, it may be that you are simply in a toxic job. You are best leaving a job like that, if your organisation is not prepared to change the nature of the job, your role and responsibilities.
- Give to others generously and practice gratitude – Take time to mentor and help others, rather than isolating yourself. When you are overloaded, those that you helped often reciprocate. Being generous and giving also feels good, as does feeling grateful for what you have. That’s not to say you should accept the unacceptable and be grateful for it, however. Being kind to others re-energises you and also makes it more likely that others will act with kindness too. You’re changing the culture of your workplace for the better, if you give more generously.
- Take control – Just because they give out orders and expect you to prioritise their agenda as the most important doesn’t mean you have to. You can manage your own time effectively, prioritise according to a wider set of criteria of your own, maintain and follow your own “To Do” list and tie these goals in with your personal weekly, monthly and yearly goals. You don’t have to be a victim, blown on the wind of managerial whims. When your needs are not being met consistently, it’s time to rethink your presence in the organisation.
- Exercise before the burnout comes – There is no doubt that paying attention to getting enough exercise is as important as managing your rest and relaxation, because an exercised body (but not an overly exercised body) helps you build resilience. You can work without so much fatigue and your brain benefits from the improved blood flow. If your body feels good, then the work doesn’t get you down as quickly. On the other hand, if you are already feeling unfit, with random aches and pains, a stressful workload will simply exacerbate these issues and you will feel much worse. Exercise is a good preventative measure against burnout. Of course, those prone to burnout sacrifice the time they would have spent exercising as one of their first discretionary time thefts, in their quest to find more time for work, so beware of that danger and resist the urge to work instead of exercising.
- Learn to avoid and manage stress – There are techniques that help you cope better with stress and to manage the stress load you take on. Meditation and relaxation techniques are useful. Learning to limit the amount of stress you are willing to endure, firmly but politely, is also important. Positive thinking techniques can also increase your resilience to stress and help you manage it.
- Don’t work for anybody you wouldn’t want to invite home to dinner – This is a good acid test of whether or not you are in the right job. If you wouldn’t feel delighted to expose your partner and family to the presence of the person you work for (or with), it’s a pretty good indication that you do not enjoy spending your working day with them either. Your guts are reliable guides to such things. Why spend up to a third of your life with people that you really wouldn’t want in your home?
- If you can’t hold your head up about where you work and what you do, don’t work there – If you cannot look yourself in the mirror and say what you do and where you work with a sense of pride, you shouldn’t be working there. If what they do or how they do it is something you’re not proud of, then why contribute your finite work capacity to this enterprise? You need to feel good about what you do, or it will eat away at you from the inside and the money you earn will not compensate for it. In fact, the money will seem tainted.
- Leave the maniacs to it – If your colleagues exert peer pressure to behave as recklessly with their health and personal time, sacrificing their personal needs and relationships for the good of the company and if the company you work for, rather than discouraging this culture, greedily endorses and embraces the workaholism rampant in their midst, walk away. Leave the maniacs to it. You can’t save them and you certainly won’t be able to save yourself from burnout, if every one of your colleagues is zealously marching forward toward their own personal burnouts. They will come. You just don’t have to be there to see them, or to be dragged down into burnout with them. If they want to devote their entire lives to meaningless work, for no reward, then you can’t stop them. You shouldn’t have to feel constant pressure to join them, though.
Burnout victims are human sacrifices, even though they are some of the most accomplished and potentially productive people there are. By carelessly burning somebody out, we lose the benefit of their brilliance and energy. The opportunity cost to all of us is very great.
In the final analysis, the human capacity for work is finite. Efforts to extract more work than can be accomplished, through pressure, bullying or burning the candle at both ends only serves to hasten the moment of burnout, where your mind and body explain to you, in vivid detail, that your capacity limit has been reached. We live in an economic system that imagines all resources to be infinite, but human resources are not infinite. They have limits, which are increasingly breached, in current times.
What counts more than the amount of work you can accomplish is that the work you do is important and matters to you. Wasting your finite work capacity on things that don’t matter to you, or which you profoundly disagree with, only serve to add regret and bitterness to the feelings of exhaustion, when you finally burn out. Always do work that has significance and importance to you, which you derive satisfaction and pleasure from doing. Don’t waste a single second of your life doing anything else. It costs you too much. The money you earn will not compensate for the burnout you will experience.
Although the world seems to be organised to systematically remove all hope of working with meaning, enjoying what one does and being fairly rewarded for giving of our best talents and ideas to humanity, we must not accept the status quo. It is not acceptable for human beings to be farmed and harvested, like battery hens, for effort and concentration that provides no reciprocal respect or success. Unemployment and underemployment are pernicious cancers that must be eradicated, not tolerated. We cannot work in perpetual, abject hopelessness. We must always demand hope. It is our right.
Some useful links