Ask yourself right now whether you are walking into work happy, positive and motivated? If the answer is no, and has been for a long time, then you might be on the path to burnout.
Stress and burnout are chronic conditions in our society today. With everyone working overtime towards ambitious goals and increasingly tight deadlines, I’m seeing more and more people struggling with day to day stress.
The most difficult part in dealing with stress is that it builds gradually, almost imperceptibly, and our performance, mood and overall happiness decline significantly before we even realise that we’re falling victim.
Recognise the signs of stress
The behavioural outcomes of stress are usually the hardest to detect as they happen on a very small scale initially. It might be more typographic errors, mild forgetfulness, unintentional snappiness, a lack of patience with people, occasional outbursts of irrational anger, and clumsiness can be signs that your mind is overloaded.
Higher level cognitive functions such as creativity, decision-making and planning all become significantly more difficult as well.
The emotional side of stress creeps up very slowly. We all know that sadness, despair, feelings of helplessness and/or panic and frustration are emotional manifestations of stress – but do we recognise them when they’re happening to us?
Are you becoming unusually withdrawn, shutting down, ruminating and procrastinating or agitated, over emotional, seeing only the negative, worrying all the time, paranoid about bad things happenings, making bad decisions, unhappy, lonely and moody?
Some people experience alarming physical symptoms – vomiting, sweating, constantly tired, unable to sleep, losing weight, putting on weight, hair loss, recurring colds and flu or severe headaches.
Recognise the thinking patterns
The thoughts that run through your mind when stressed or burnt out, which can be such an important precursor to behaviour, are where the major disruptions lie. Stress is a form of overload, so your thoughts in this period will be around coping. If that’s framed negatively you might be saying things like this to yourself:
It’s all too much; I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done.
I can’t bear going in to work today.
Oh no! Not another issue!
I wish everyone would just leave me alone.
Nobody understands how much pressure I’m under.
But there is a form of mental procrastination that happens when nearing burnout in which people actually block out these thoughts.
They don’t replace them with positive messages; they just go into a state of mental numbness. This is the hardest mental state to break out of because your mind is just way too full of obligation and pressure.
What to do if you’re feeling close to burnout
The most important thing a stressed person can do is to maintain some activities that bring joy and satisfaction. These are the things that balance pressure in our lives and make us more resilient. Unfortunately, a stressed out individual is quite likely to say they don’t have time for these things, or don’t feel like it because the drain on their energy means that at the end of the day they just want to stop and do ‘nothing’.
It is this self-defeating cycle that is making stress such a huge problem in our society. On an individual level people are sabotaging their own recovery. This is where support from friends, family and social groups become so important.
Whether it’s your romantic partner or close friends, talking about the challenges and frustrations of work, and how you deal with them, is pivotal in creating the self-awareness you need to get through. But it can’t just be an ongoing emotional dumping. It’s important to discuss what you plan to do about it to resolve the situation.
A little bit of stress is a good thing
One thing that makes stress difficult to identify is that a small amount of it is motivating. When we talk of SMART goals we use a time-bound measure to create some urgency and to frame our approach. This provides an amount of pressure that can be motivating. What we find difficult to deal with, however, is when we have multiple projects running simultaneously or when the timeframe is far too tight.
Addressing the self-defeating thoughts
The drive to keep pushing through pain and adversity is usually seen as an admirable trait. Stress and burnout represent the regrettable side of that trait. A helpful shift in mindset is to think about what you need to produce your best work. Instead of ‘work harder, faster, longer’, you can start thinking about what fuel you need to be productive. If you are going to work a 60+ hour week then you need to be making sure your time away from work is really restoring, in whatever way that may be for you.
The result is that you start to think more about what motivates and satisfies you rather than being constantly preoccupied with what is demanded of you. This subtle shift can have a remarkable effect on resilience and output. A mindset of replenishment and high performance instead of pushing to exhaustion and beyond will have great consequences beyond addressing an acute stress phase.
Do you know someone who is burning out but doesn’t realise it?
After the recent R U OK? Day, it occurred to me that we often fail to look out for our friends and family in the way that we should. The struggle with people suffering from stress and burnout is that the victims are often very resistant to advice. The behavioural loop and tunnel vision that created the situation is the same one that prevents them accepting help and advice.
Sometimes you need to take a creative approach to helping someone.
Instead of ‘I think you’re stressed and you need to stop what you’re doing’, which will incur some resistance and pushback, why not suggest something outside of work hours or during a lunchbreak in which you give the person a chance to talk, vent and open up?
Let’s all really look out for each other more
Stress and burnout is an isolating set of feelings and requires us supporting each other through challenging and exhausting times. Have the presence of mind to realise that you or someone close is on a self-destructive path. Build support systems, talk to friends and create essential free time for activities that really refresh and rejuvenate.
Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.