Every so often, a psychological term breaks into the mainstream and enters our everyday conversation. From “resilience” to “attachment theory”, these ideas reach their zenith and then we forget that they were ever new to us. “Burnout” has been with us for a while now – we know what it is and how harmful it can be to our mental health. Sadly, we’re not so good at treating it.
It’s a serious state of affairs. Publications from Harvard Business Review to The Guardian have reported a devastating rise in burnout, and you know the situation is dire when a professor who teaches the psychology of happiness gets affected too. So, let’s take a step back and reapproach burnout – what it is, how to treat it, and whether we need to accept it.
What is Burnout?
Burnout as a diagnostic term has a long and winding history, much of which I’ll be skipping over in this article. While it’s somewhat intriguing, I don’t think a history lesson is what you need right now.
In its current form, burnout refers to a state of overwhelming stress. Usually, we use burnout when referring to work-related stress, but it can also be caused by cognitive conditions or constant unpaid labour like caregiving. Essentially, we have been given (or taken on) more cognitive strain than we can handle; we are beyond “challenge” or “pushing ourselves”. Rather, we’ve gone too far – and the result is a series of uncomfortable symptoms that Mental Health UK summarises as:
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached/alone in the world
- Having a cynical/negative outlook
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Feeling overwhelmed
I’m Burnt Out – Now What?
It may be a cliché, but there’s profound truth in the saying “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” You cannot proceed to a safer psychological state until you admit that you’re currently teetering on the edge of instability and poor mental health. If your sink was leaking water all through your home, the solution isn’t to first grab as many towels as possible. It’s to deal with what’s broken. So, turn to someone you trust and tell them “I’ve got way too much on my hands and I’m struggling. I need help.”
Once you’ve shared the situation with someone, you can begin to tackle to problem from a place of support and also accountability. It’s easy (if unsustainable) to try keeping everything going as is on your own but telling someone means they will check in and expect the situation to change.
The next step is to limit what you can, which translates to a serious review of your boundaries. Where have you stretched yourself beyond what is expected and necessary? Here are some suggestions:
- Have your promised friends and family too much support? Can you scale it back without leaving anyone in genuine danger? Is it possible that someone in your circle is actually monopolising your time and emotions but you just haven’t realised?
- Are you pushing yourself beyond your working hours? You may love your job, or be aiming toward advancement, but is that worth the agony of burnout? Afterall, you are only paid for the hours you work.
- Are you neglecting your core needs in order to meet points 1 and 2? Are you sleeping less or eating unhealthily? Are you spending too much money on others and then pocketing the anxiety change? Neglected core needs can exacerbate the experience of burnout, so it’s important to make sure you are okay before helping others.
If your burnout is work-related, contact your Human Resources team and ask if your company provides an Employee Assistance Programme. This usually includes therapy that you do not need to pay for, and which can be massively beneficial in cases of burnout.
So, Just Work on Myself?
Well, no. And this is perhaps the hardest part.
Burnout is especially fuelled by systems and/or people who take advantage of us and, unfortunately, there are a lot of those in our world. It’s easy to say, “Take a work break/sabbatical from your crushing job”, but the reality is that most of us can’t actually do that without putting our finances and lives in jeopardy. Similarly, you could be encouraged to spend less time with family, but some of our cultures are founded in collective experience and that approach could be a serious misstep.
The truth is, there’s no easy way out and trying to change things alone won’t help in the long-term. You do need to scale back and adjust your activities in order to address personal burnout. But as a widespread problem, it’s going to take some serious challenges to how we think of “work”, “family”, “friendships”, and even “love” to better combat burnout.
So, after you’ve tended to yourself, I encourage you to read what others have written and spend some time in contemplation. Together, we can reconfigure the world so that burnout doesn’t leave so many of us in its devastating clutches.