I can’t help but laugh to myself as I begin to write this because before my career even started I experienced burn out as a student studying Social Work. It affected me so badly that I ended up in hospital as I thought I was having a heart attack. I was however experiencing my first panic attack. The good news is that six years into my career as a social worker it has never gotten as bad since. It was a very hard lesson to learn and I had to retrain my brain to manage stress differently which has served me since which is why I want to share this with you. Another inspiration for writing this is because two of my favourite people are on the brink of burn out. It has reminded me that so many people mindlessly and endlessly accept this as a way of functioning for far too long, until unfortunately, something happens which insists that you simply stop and slow down, whether that be a physical illness or an emotional breakdown.
For many years the phrase burn out has been associated with professional caring careers. More recently there has been warranted recognition that it can become an issue in all walks of life whether or not you are a stay at home parent, self-employed or experiencing any form of external overload.
First up, it is important to differentiate the difference between stress and burn out. Stress is something that we all experience most days in some form or another. Being stuck in traffic, rushing to a meeting, attempting to meet a deadline the list goes on. On the most part stress is beneficial because it provides us with that added oomph that we need to excel in a new situation. Burn out on the other hand, occurs when stress is chronic and extends over a long period of time. It happens when the demand being placed on you is in excess of the resources available to you at the time to deal with the external overload you are faced with. As highlighted before in previous posts stress is a healthy and normal occurrence which happens in the body however our bodies are not designed to be in a constant state of stress. If stress is prolonged, receptors in our brain translate this as being in danger and chemical reactions are initiated to attack this threat. If these reactions aren’t used for their intended purposes, we are left feeling overwhelmed, panicked and physically unwell.
The types of people burn out impacts most frequently are the perfectionists. The ones who decide to get into work early to get a head start with the day however still end up working late, all the while obsessively worrying about performance and their career’s future. The mother/ father who is excessively anxious about whether or not they are doing a good enough job. It doesn’t take long before this type of behaviour can quickly begin to impact your overall job performance but more importantly your relationships, health and happiness. The signs of burn out are very visible from the outside but often the person experiencing it are the last to notice the decline in their wellbeing.
How to tell if you have reached the point of burn out:
A preoccupation with work when not at work
Are you at home longer than an hour and find your mind drifting back to the office or an event that occurred at work? Are you worrying about a work related activity that is happening the next day? Are you a parent at work who is feeling guilty about their baby being in crèche? Are you a stay at home parent judging yourself for not furthering yourself in your career? The list is endless but there is an issue if you can’t be present at work or at home as result of a preoccupation with competing demands.
If this resonates with you it can be helpful to first identify that this is an experience you are having. I appreciate after a stressful day at work it can be hard to switch off. There are times when no matter what mechanisms you put in place it can be very difficult to leave work at work. However, again if this is occurring over a prolonged period of time it has the potential to be very damaging. If you are at home mulling over the working day then your work is interfering with your ability to recover from the stressors of the day because there is no let up. A practice I have found to be very useful which I incorporate into my daily working life is; picking a place on the journey home where I leave work behind and enter into my home life. I walk through a tunnel on the way home and use this as my metaphor to travel into the other part of my life. I make a conscious decision to leave any worries or thoughts about work at the end of the tunnel and assure myself that as I walk through it the following day I will pick these thoughts back up and deal with them at work. This takes practice but it really works if you are persistent.
A reduction in self-care. Consuming unhealthy food, drinking excess alcohol and letting physical activity fall to the waste side
A change in what your usual habits consist of are major warning signs of the commencement of burn out. Are you using the excuse of being too tired to cancel plans with friends, to engage in cooking, exercise? The simple reality is that you haven’t prioritised self-care in your life and instead continue to give precedence to the hamster wheel of working yourself into the ground. Do you find that you are craving alcohol more as a mechanism of escapism? It doesn’t have to be as extreme as excessive alcohol use, be mindful that even healthy self care practices which become excessive as a way of coping have the potential to be damaging. These shifts can appear slowly initially but can quickly escalate into long term coping mechanisms.
In recent months I have become increasingly interested in the connection between the gut and the brain. A significant amount of research has been carried out which illuminates the close connection. I am currently researching this for another blog post coming shortly. If you begin to notice a change in your digestion in the form of unexplained constipation, diarrhoea, reduced or increased appetite be cognisant that these symptoms can also be your body’s way of alerting you to the excess pressure it is under.
Deterioration in your mental health and an increase in irritability
If left untreated burn out can lead to depression and or anxiety. If feelings of satisfaction in things which used to excite you diminish it can be a precursor to a more long term mental health issue. Any semblance of a balanced life can easily go out the window if you let it. Social activities are often the first to be neglected. Cancelling plans with friends and loved ones because you are simply exhausted should make you question where your priorities are. As you bury yourself in work and deadlines your social circle of support can be neglected and the support system you once relied on may not be as available to you which can further increase you sense of isolation and enable you to continue distracting yourself instead of addressing the problem.
If you notice that the above warning signs speak to you it is time to do something about it before it worsens.
- First up, know when it is you and when it is them. Burnout can be motivated by internal factors and can also simply be as a result of external ones. Learn to know the difference, is it the job or is it you? A quick way to answer this is to look back over your career history. Do you frequently experience the above symptoms despite a variance in your place of work? If so, then burn out may be as a result of a habit you have formed to shy away from the real issue. Excess demands and fewer resources are most likely going to be issues wherever you work. On the other hand, sometimes it genuinely is the working environment and if so discuss this with your line manager or HR and if it isn’t resolved leave. Life is too short to maintain a life of constant stress at the expensive of your own mental health and relationships with your family.
- Take Relaxation Seriously. Plan relaxation it into your day. Everyday make sure that you are blocking off a period of time that is for self-care. Do something you enjoy during this time. I literally block off days in my diary every month where I am not allowed make any plans. These are days were I prioritise just living and spending time with Ian and the doggies. It has been the most beneficial tool I have used to sustain a busy lifestyle.
- Find something outside of work that you are passionate about which engrosses you so that you aren’t consumed by your thoughts. Learn a new instrument, start a new hobby, engage in a new sport.
- Prioritise Sleep! As I always say ‘sleep is the mother of all medicine’. Lack of sleep is a major risk factor for burnout as it decreases your motivation, makes you more sensitive to stressful events and over all makes it more difficult to juggle competing demands. Make sure that you are getting eight hours a night. It is amazing the difference an extra hour of sleep a night makes to your energy levels. If this seems unattainable for you currently, start by turning off the lights fifteen minutes early and gradually increase it. Do not live a life of banking on the weekend to catch up on your sleep as your rhythmic cycle does not work in this way. Have a read of my other blog post on the ‘importance of sleep’which has much more in depth information about its importance.
- Ask yourself, is the way you are feeling emotional or rational? Separating these two can be useful in assisting yourself to see the wood from the trees. If it is emotional burnout it is usually related to internal factors such as an underlying sense of low self-esteem. If it is rational it can usually be solved by a conversation with your manager or someone in your social network of support.
- Question what it is that you need to do to deserve the life you want? Are your actions every day matching your ambitions? If they aren’t then don’t complain about it. It is up to you to change things. You need to lean into discomfort to change and to accept the real reasoning why you are in this situation. No more sugar coating! Be real with yourself!
- Get in touch with what actually makes you happy. We so often make things far more complicated than they really are. Identify what makes you happy in this life and do more of it.
- Make sure that the coping mechanisms you are using are not just simply enabling you to escape. Coping mechanisms should assist in disconnecting so that you can relax and switch off but they shouldn’t provide a form of escapism because a life that you need to escape is not the one you want to be living.
Bottom Line always always give yourself the option of leaving the; job, the relationship, the country whatever it is that is making you unhappy. This is something my mother taught me from a young age and it really is a valuable piece of advice. It’s okay to quit. Having always allowed myself this option, I have never yet had to use it but I think that has a lot to do with knowing there is always a way out. Don’t forget that nothing in this life is worth your happiness and well being and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You have to look after you, because no one else will. Know your limitations and adhere to them. Push yourself yes, but never to the point of exhaustion. Achieve your goals and ambitions but always make sure whatever you are working towards is worth it. Be real with yourself and if it is too much, begin to build a way out today.
Happy Sunday !