Burnout is a buzzword these days, especially with the lines blurred thanks to WFH. What causes it and how can we fix the problem?
Picture this: work is a major stress factor. You’re perpetually exhausted and irritable. You feel a helpless sense of self-doubt. Your body’s betraying you with headaches and stomachaches. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your priorities because you may be experiencing burnout. It’s a slow burn, so the signs may be subtle at first, but these are the common symptoms that usually accompany it.
Of course, not every stressful job leads to burnout, but ones with an unreasonable workload, unclear expectations or support, and unfair treatment can cause it. Work-life imbalance plays a part as well. When you push yourself too hard at the cost of self-care, burnout can affect your physical and mental health, as well as your home and social life.
Sound familiar (or worrying)? Read on to find out what exactly is burnout, how you can treat it and protect yourself from it. Vanessa Heng, a clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, answers all our questions.
Everything you need to know about burnout
First off, what is burnout?
Burnout is a state of exhaustion (mental, physical and emotional), typically caused by chronic stress resulting from individual experiences (at work, in relationships and so on). You may feel overwhelmed or disinterested in daily tasks, and experience a drop in productivity.
Burnout vs stress: what’s the difference?
Stress is our natural response to pressure – it may come as feeling emotional or physically tense. At times, we take on too much responsibility and activity, which produces a sense of urgency. Burnout occurs when the stress we experience is extended over a period of time without the ability to elevate its intensity.
How does burnout affect us physically, emotionally and mentally?
Burnout may cause you to experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, frequent headaches, an increase in physical ailments, and alterations in sleep or eating habits. Other manifestations may include having a cynical outlook of self, others, and the world, as well as feelings of helplessness, loss of interest and motivation, and self-doubt.
What kind of work conditions trigger it?
Job burnout can be a result of a chaotic, fast-paced and high-pressure culture. It comes from unrelenting expectations from yourself or others to perform with little or no control over the work. It’s also about not feeling valued and being under-equipped in resources and support to meet job expectations.
How can we tell we’re experiencing burnout?
It’s common to be unaware because it usually occurs gradually. A tell-tale sign is a decrease in enthusiasm that carries over from work to home, feeling irritable and exhausted, experiencing a lack of interest in tasks, and a noticeable drop in productivity. The Maslach Burnout Inventory and the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory are reliable and valid self-report questionnaires to assess your level of burnout.
Before it’s too late, how do we prevent it and protect ourselves?
Understand our stress levels, work around our capacity, and incorporate self-care into our lifestyle. Self-care doesn’t need to be effortful or require a whole day. It can be as simple as being present in the moment when enjoying our cup of coffee. Or spending time with our social support system, interacting with colleagues and receiving work-related advice to cope with workplace demands.
It’s also important to check in with ourselves by asking “how am I feeling” as we would with our loved ones. Have a confidant you can check in with to encourage realistic expectations. Cultivating the practice of saying “no” can help reduce overcommitting to tasks. Block out time in your week to engage in pleasant activities that matter to you. When feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, ask yourself if the situation is within or outside your control.
Any essential self-care tips to help us avoid burnout?
Learn to set emotional, mental and physical boundaries that are in line with your values at work or in relationships. Regularly practising controlled breathing (for example: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds) helps reduce our baseline stress levels. Regular exercise, meals and sufficient sleep (the hours depend on what your body needs) are also important practices in reducing our vulnerabilities to burnout.
How can we implement a healthy work-life balance, especially when the lines are blurred with WFH?
Designate a specific area in the house for work and practice not doing work outside that area. Don’t carry work into after-office hours – enjoy that time with yourself and loved ones! Set healthy boundaries with colleagues and bosses by saying “no” to extended work. This can be done in a polite way that’s not anxiety-inducing. For example: “Thank you for entrusting me with this task. I will get back to you the next working day.”
What does the path to recovery look like?
Practising mindfulness – observing our present moment experiences non-judgmentally – is a way to manage burnout. Just as burnout is a gradual build-up, the recovery process will also take time. The process typically starts with recognition of the problem, identifying where the problem stems from (external or internal), and working with or around the cause.
Got more questions about burnout? Don’t hesitate to share with a trusted friend or approach a professional for help. Or DM us @Honeycombers if you’d like to kickstart a conversation.