We keep hearing about the dangers of work-related stress and the importance of work-life balance. However, many of us struggle to participate in self-compassion and self-care. We struggle with “taking care of our needs.” High achievers, in particular, find it difficult to abandon their “I can do everything by myself” motto and label asking for help as a sign of weakness. It may be the passion that fuels their ambition or the desire to constantly prove themselves.
High achievers strive to excel by working long hours, taking on overwhelming workloads, and constantly putting pressure on themselves to be the best. This is what makes them and other professionals who struggle to find a positive balance between their work life and private life the best candidates for burnout.
What is burnout?
The concept is relatively new and was first used in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Burnout manifests as extreme fatigue and chronic stress and takes individuals through three main stages: exhaustion, detachment or cynicism, and the feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. In other words, individuals suffering from job burnout tend to experience mental exhaustion that affects their job performance, feel no joy going to work, and have a reduced ability to perform their job properly.
Burnout is usually associated with a high-stress job or a demanding profession (lawyer, physician, nurse, therapist, teacher), but it can also stem from an unhealthy lifestyle and environment that can cause constant stress or build up over the already existing chronic workplace stress. Perfectionism, the constant need for control, and pessimism can also fuel feelings of burnout.
Who is most predisposed to burnout?
Burnout, like many other mental health issues, has a way of creeping up on someone without the individual ever noticing it. It can be caused by various stressors, including high-stress environments and stressful situations, such as caring for an ill family member or children or receiving tragic or upsetting news. Unnoticed and untreated, burnout can impact someone’s overall well-being, stealing their joy and sometimes their will to live and leading to more serious mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression.
High achievers are the most predisposed to developing burnout, but this doesn’t mean that other individuals exposed to a constant source of stress or dealing with high-stress levels outside a professional environment are not at risk of burnout. Everyone can suffer from burnout as long as they are exposed to a prolonged period of stress, negative emotions, or traumatic stress.
What are the tell-tale signs of burnout?
Burnout is a state of mental and emotional exhaustion often accompanied by a wide range of mental and physical symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of burnout are:
chronic fatigue – it starts with a constant lack of energy and feeling tired all the time and may lead to emotional exhaustion, feeling empty and drained, and having to struggle with a lack of motivation in all aspects of life;
isolation – patients suffering from burnout tend to feel overwhelmed in any situation and find it easier to withdraw from a social situation and isolate themselves from the rest of the world;
sleep and appetite changes – changes in appetite and sleep patterns are often a consequence of stressful situations, and they usually get worse as the level of burnout increases;
attention and concentration problems – workplace burnout often manifests as lack of focus and forgetfulness that, in time, may prevent individuals from getting their work done and struggle with a lack of productivity;
physical symptoms – burnout can impact your blood pressure, decrease energy levels, and cause shortness of breath; individuals suffering from burnout may also experience chest pain, heart palpitation, dizziness, and fainting;
increased illness – due to extreme exhaustion and overwhelming stress for an extended period, burnout patients have a weakened immune system and are more prone to colds, flu, and infections;
irritability – a natural consequence of extreme fatigue and continuous stressors, irritability takes hold of the individual struggling with burnout, who finds it more difficult to be patient and understanding with the people around them;
anxiety and depression – in the late stages of burnout, the patient may develop symptoms of anxiety and depression from constantly worrying and being on the edge to pronounced sadness and hopelessness, as well as feelings of worthlessness and guilt; a carousel of distressing emotions and negative effects impact the individual’s health and well-being.
How can we prevent burnout?
The path to burnout starts with excessive drive and an uncontrollable eagerness to work harder and push yourself beyond your own limits. Left unchecked, your ambition and drive can cause you to lose sight of what really matters in life and put your needs and self-care on a secondary plan. The most common symptoms of stress can amplify and pave the way to burnout.
Soon enough, you’ll find no time for needs that are not associated with your work and isolate yourself from your family and friends in an endless chase for perfection. Behavioral changes often follow and can bring with them irritability, lack of motivation, feelings of inadequacy, fatigue, and lower productivity levels.
Stress is indeed unavoidable in our day-to-day life, and trying to eliminate all sources of stress from our professional and personal life is a battle lost before it’s ever fought. However, burnout syndrome can be avoided if we educate ourselves on the topic and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Whether we are talking of professional burnout, burnout caused by financial pressures, or caregiver burnout, we can learn to manage excessive stress and prevent the effects of chronic fatigue if we:
eat healthily – a healthy diet abundant in omega-3 fatty acids can help us fight depression and improve our mood;
exercise – regular exercise boosts our positive emotions and allows us to better handle stressful situations without succumbing to their emotional weight;
sleep – a healthy sleep pattern can do wonders for our health, providing our body with the necessary time to rest and reset;
adopt a self-care plan – whether we’re taking some time off to read a book, take a bath, or go on vacation, self-care is primordial for our physical and emotional health;
be aware of the warning signs – knowing the most common signs of burnout and making sure we change our ways as soon as we notice the first sign of burnout can help us avoid the psychological effects of burnout and allow us to adopt a positive attitude when faced with stressors.
talk to a therapist – asking for help is never a sign of weakness; talking about our overwhelming emotions with a mental health professional can help us identify the stressors in our life and learn to manage them.