The Opposite of Rest Isn’t Work...Its Burnout
Jacinda Ardern has led by example recently, stepping down as New Zealands prime minister stating that she doesn't have "enough in the tank" to continue as a leader. While her announcement has come as a shock to many, I have to praise her honesty and self-awareness as well as the humility it must have taken to admit to herself, and the rest of the world when enough is enough.
Burnout is becoming a very fashionable term. I can barely open Instagram before my feed is flooded with tips and tricks to me come back from the brink of burnout. But how much do you really know about it? Let’s delve a bit deeper. Burnout is a natural response to prolonged stress. Burnout encompasses three different components: depersonalisation where you separate yourself emotionally from your work instead of investing yourself and feeling like it's meaningful; a decreased sense of accomplishment, where you just keep working harder and harder for less and less sense that what you are doing is making any difference; and emotional exhaustion, no need to explain that one any further. Whilst everyone who burns-out experiences all three of these factors, broadly speaking, for men, burnout tends to manifest more as depersonalisation whilst for women, burnout tends to manifest more as emotional exhaustion. Thus whilst anyone can experience burnout we will all experience it a little differently.
Although this description of burnout may be familiar there is a lot of overlap between burnout and many other experiences, including depression, anxiety, grief and rage. So for simplicity sake when we are talking about burnout here we are defining it as that feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, while still worrying that you are not doing enough. It is also important to know that burnout is not a medical diagnosis. It is not a psychological illness. It is a condition related to overwhelming stress. You are not trapped in it forever. There are ways to put out the fire.
Burnout happens when demand outweighs capacity. Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours working. Working hard. Often feeling that there is more to do than we have time for in each day. Each time we work through lunch, trade sleep for a few more hours of productivity, or reply to an email outside of work hours we normalise these things, to ourselves and to others. We also contribute to societal expectations that other people should do the same. Each time we overwork we are contributing it. Ultimately we are contributing to our own burnout. Now don’t misunderstand me here I am not anti hard work, I am pro deep rest and restoration. The kind of balance and restoration that can enable us to be highly proactive and hard working human beings. One thing we are not when we are burned out is productive.
Burnout can have a serious toll on your life. This toll can be wide spread and varied. Signs of burnout can be wide ranging including emotional, behaviour, cognitive and somatic symptoms. This may include including gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, poor immune function, reoccurring headaches, sleep issues, concentration issues, depressed mood, anxiety, loss of interest, fatigue, poor performance, reduced creativity and cynicism at work. How many times did you nod your head in agreement when you read through that list? Burned out people are 63% more likely to take a sick day and more than twice as likely to seek a different job than those who are not feeling burnt out.
Who gets burned out and what are the risk factors?
Burnout levels are currently at a record high. 88% of the workforce in the UK have experienced burnout in the past two years according to recent research. A shocking and terrifying statistic. Whether this number reflects the western nations more generally remains to be seen, but what we do know is that burnout is on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new stressors to nearly every domain of life, from increased demands at home to longer and often more fractured working hours, heightening everyone’s risk of burnout. Other issues such as like the politicisation of vaccines and feelings of lack of support from the government and workplaces further caused workers, especially those in the caring professions, to become cynical about their jobs. As the world heads into its fourth year of the pandemic, these stressors have become persistent and indefinite, add in economic uncertainty and daily stress around financial stability and we have the perfect recipe for burnout. In saying all of this, although it is likely that the burnout pandemic has has been exacerbated due to COVID, our society was ripe for a generation of burned out people long before the pandemic hit.
We know that some people in certain occupations are at higher risk of burnout symptoms than others, people working in caring roles in particular are at high risk. While burnout research has primarily focussed on healthcare professionals, it is now clear that burnout impacts people from all professional groups. According to research there are five job factors can contribute to employee burnout including: Unreasonable time pressures (those who have enough time to do their work are 70% less likely to experience burnout); lack of communication and support from management; lack of role clarity; unmanageable workload, and unfair treatment.
The factors that lead to burnout are not just professional ones however. Having a high stress job, for example, doesn’t make burnout a foregone conclusion. Parenting, relationships, running households, and keeping abreast of the mental load are just as significant when it comes to burnout. Basically anything where you need to care and invest, where there are ongoing and increasing demands, and where it is not possible to meet expectation with the resources you have. That is the formula for burnout, no matter what context it's in.
What can help?
Burnout is not inevitable and it is not “just part of the job”. Believe it or not, there are people and organisations where the likelihood of experiencing burnout is close to zero. These employees share three things in common: they are engaged at work in a job they enjoy, they have high wellbeing, and their organisation has a strengths-based culture.
Getting help – is it worth it?
So, if it’s not clear yet let me just highlight: burnout can be prevented and recovered from. But the cure is not simply getting enough rest and focusing on self care. How can you be expected to "self-care" your way out of burnout? That will only get you so far. The cure for burnout is all of us caring for each other. We can't do it alone. We need each other. Making that happen in real life is, of course, easier said than done. We can start with ourselves. We need to normalise nourishing lunch breaks. We need to normalise getting enough sleep. We need to normalise ignoring our emails out of hours. We need to normalise unfinished to-do lists. We need to normalise asking for help and saying no. This last one is a little reminder to myself; when I tell myself to dig in and have a little more grit, I actually need to ask for more help!
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