Modern life was stressful enough before Covid came along, but the events of the last year have without doubt made things worse, while at the same time conspiring to keep us all cramped up together at home away from any of the things we used to do to unwind. What with homeschooling, work from home, health worries, and a chronic lack of recreation opportunities, It’s perhaps unsurprising that burnout has become a hot topic.
A Gallup survey in the United States recently found that over two thirds of people questioned reported feeling burnt out at work, and according to a Deloitte study, an incredible 84% of millennials feel they’re suffering from burnout in their current jobs.
But what is this freshly resurgent disorder, how do you get it, what are the symptoms, and most importantly, what can we do about it? Read on to find out
Although the WHO recently recognised “Burnout” in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, it is not officially classed as a disease or a health condition, and as such there’s no universally accepted definition of it.
In the 1970s, German American psychologist called Herbert Freudenberger was the first person to use the term “burn out”, which he defined as a “state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. He initially used it to describe the fatigue being felt by overworked, under-appreciated medical staff, but its acceptance into the mainstream suggests all too many of us feel it’s a perfect way of describing how our busy lives leave us feeling.
It’s essentially mental and physical exhaustion, experienced over time, coupled with the inability to recharge our batteries. It’s specifically something related to work, and comes with a feeling of hopelessness. Where stress gets us going and makes everything more intense, when burnout occurs we start to feel helpless, and stop caring. Our emotions are blunted. We become cynical, and numb.
One major contributing factor to burnout is the sheer relentlessness of work nowadays. There was once a time when our time at work was neatly separated from the rest of our lives. We were either at work, and therefore available, or not, and free to concentrate on not working. And then came the smartphone, with its digital pings and prods, with its double tick “message read” notifications, with its promise of easy access, immediate response, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and we found ourselves responding to work emails everywhere. In bed, on the beach, in the bath, nowhere is safe from it’s reach, and without the ability to separate work time and leisure time, to switch our work selves off and just be Mums or friends or lovers, or drinking partners, our mental health is suffering.
But our inability to separate work and freetime is only part of the story. The work itself has become harder and harder of late. Progress and development, new forms of communication, new models of production, consolidation of workflow, cutbacks and streamlining, everything in our work lives seems to be moving in the same direction. We are expected to deliver more and more every year, in less time, and with fewer resources. And everyone knows you can’t stretch everything in every direction without something breaking.
In their book on burnout, Dr Michael P. Leitner and Dr Christina Maslach said burnout was made more likely by these six factors:
Your work doesn’t align with your core values.
We need to feel like we can make decisions on our own, and that our work has impact. Autonomy is important to a healthy work life.
Feeling undervalued and taken for granted can quickly lead to apathy and disillusionment with our work.
Too much work, unrealistic deadlines, work that’s too complicated.
This is one of the biggest influencing factors. We are prepared to work hard as long as we feel it’s a fair fight, but when the scales are tipped against us, we’re far more likely to throw in the towel.
No man (or non-man) is an island. We are social animals. We need to feel like those around us have our back, or at least that they’re not actively conspiring against us. A workforce without unity and trust weakens our resolve and makes us feel vulnerable.
It’s a feeling no longer reserved for high altitude mountain climbers and new parents. You’re running on empty. You simply don’t have any more to give. You’ve had enough. You just want to go to sleep.
You no longer feel aligned with your work or your colleagues. You don’t identify with the cause. You feel alone. Cynicism is beginning to creep in and you’re starting to think things like, “What’s the point? Why bother? This is a load of crap anyway. Who cares?”. You feel alone.
Perhaps inevitable given the exhaustion and the alienation, you can feel your standards starting to slip. You know that you’re not giving your all. You’re capable of much better, but you don’t have the energy or the desire to pull it out the bag. Your work is suffering.
All of this can become a negative spiral over time, bringing with it poor sleep, diminished immune systems, physical illness, emotional isolation, dependence on food, drugs and alcohol, and a host of other associated problems.
We all feel exhausted and a bit down from time to time, especially during periods of high stress, but if you find you’re dragging yourself out of bed every day, your work is suffering, and you’re starting to feel like none of it really matters, you could well be on your way to burnout.
The first thing you really need to do is reach out and talk to someone at work who can help. Let people know how you’re feeling, don’t suffer in silence. If your work is suffering, it’s far better people know why. Most bosses will be understanding, and most HR departments have systems in place to help out. You are not alone. If you don’t start feeling better after a few weeks, it might be time to seek professional help from your doctor.
Ultimately, the answer lies in taking time out, detaching from work for a while, and finding a better work/life balance. The Mindshine App contains all sorts of exercises and routines (many of them free) designed to help with problems just like these, and move you in the right direction.
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