Burnout: Heard of It?

While burnout is never solely your responsibility to fix, mindfulness can help us navigate the individual and systemic solutions.

What Is Burnout? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the phenomenon of burnout as being characterized by three things: 

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Reduced productivity at work
  • A sense of detachment from one’s job

We know it when we feel it. It’s the overwhelming to-do list, the mental load and physical exhaustion, and the inability to find joy in our daily lives.

In essence, burnout can feel a lot like depression, but the key difference is that it relates directly to the work we do. The WHO states that burnout can’t be applied to describe experiences we have outside of an occupational context, but it will be interesting to see how this official definition changes after COVID-19.

Is It a Bad Day or Is it Burnout?

There’s a difference between a period of bad days, which we’ve all encountered, and burnout. Burnout is something that creeps up on you. Imagine a leak in your bathroom pipe that has been dripping unassumingly behind the walls for months or even years. One day, the pressure becomes too much, the pipe ruptures, and that water comes bursting through the walls with devastating results.

It’s when every day seems riddled with strife and anxiety until you reach a tipping point where all things seem futile and you find yourself at the point of giving up. To put it in simpler terms: Burnout is a bad day every day.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

So, how do you know if you’re burnt out or, perhaps, getting close? There are three telltale burnout symptoms that most people affected find themselves facing:

  1. Emotional exhaustion, mental exhaustion, and physical exhaustion: People with burnout usually describe experiencing a complete lack of energy that manifests itself physically. Some are even diagnosed by their doctors with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Regardless, this troubled state results in a debilitating feeling of dread for what the day will bring, even on days when no major work or personal responsibilities loom. Basic tasks and even things that would normally provide joy become chores. Surprisingly, though exhausted, people with burnout often have trouble sleeping to the point they develop chronic insomnia. This inability to rest and recharge makes it harder to concentrate and focus, which eventually shows up in physical forms, such as panic attacks, chest pain, trouble breathing, migraines, and stomach pains. These symptoms become so severe and disruptive that it becomes impossible to cope with the challenges (and even pleasures) of daily life.
  2. Detachment and cynicism: Those suffering from burnout tend to become perpetual pessimists. They go well beyond seeing the glass as half empty. For them, the glass is totally empty and there’s zero reason to try and fill it. Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and an inability to accept consolation from others or connect to the empathy offered by others is commonplace. They retreat into themselves and resist socializing. Eventually, fueled by a desire to shut everyone out, they move to a state of total isolation and justify their retreat with a cynical approach to life, family, friends, work, you name it. 
  3. Feelings of self-doubt and ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment: Sometimes people experiencing burnout are still capable of going through the motions. They still make it to the office. They still get the job done. They still join the family for dinner and handle the household duties. However, they do it in an almost robotic manner. There is no zest, no pleasure, and, therefore, performance suffers. They find ordinary tasks take longer. They procrastinate and invent excuses as to why they’re less effective. They get frustrated at things that were once easy and now seem overwhelming. They’re physically present and on some level functioning, but emotionally and mentally, they’re a shell of their former selves and are keenly aware of their inadequacy. This, as you can imagine, only perpetuates those feelings of exhaustion and detachment.

Now before you come to the immediate conclusion that you’re suffering from all the above, drop your shoulders and take a breath.

We have all experienced one or more of the signs of burnout in our lives. In fact, they seem so familiar to us because in various degrees they are simply a part of dealing with everyday life and its stresses. Remember, the difference between a difficult period and burnout is a matter of a few degrees.

Job Burnout: How to Spot it and Take Action

According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of people feel stress at work. A March 2021 survey of US employees found that 52% of respondents feel burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) report the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.

Burnout is not so much about the specifics of your job. It’s a combination of the factors that create stress in a workplace and the choices we make (and don’t make). Being aware of the external factors that contribute to burnout (workplace culture, lack of support from management, unmanageable workloads) and approaching the stressors with mindfulness and clear purpose can transform our relationship with stress—and put work in its place. To start, here are some actions you can take to start redefining your relationship with work.

  1. Define the core issues: Can you pinpoint what causes the overwhelm? Is it a capacity issue? Do you have more work than hours to complete it? Is it a skill issue? Is there a gap in the skills you have versus what is required? Is it a communication issue? Are you able to share what’s causing stress? This is your first step: Collect all the relevant data so you know where to focus solutions.
  2. One step at a time: You didn’t arrive at burnout overnight and the process to undo habits will take time. Pick one behavior right now that you can consciously begin to shift. For example, create clear start and end times for work each day. The flexibility that technology and remote working offer can be overwhelming and contribute to burnout if boundaries between work and non-work time are not well-established.
  3. Befriend your body: How do you hold stress? Maybe you grind your teeth at night, experience a knot of tension in your neck, or have trouble staying asleep. Now think about what helps you to unwind. Taking a lunchtime walk outside, going for a post-work run, as examples. Regularly tune into your body so that you can recognize the earliest signs that stress is present, and take the preventive actions you’ve identified to work through it before it overwhelms.
  4. Share what you need: Professional stress can be incredibly isolating; we often withdraw in order to “deal with” work issues on our own. But letting the people in your life know what you need to feel supported is essential for putting things in perspective and managing stress. None of us can do it all alone. Your colleagues and loved ones won’t know how to help if you don’t tell them how you’re feeling.

Signs of Burnout at Work

Research suggests that if we attempt to repress how our work affects us—how our work affects our emotional health—it can lead to increased stress, less productivity, heightened depression and anxiety, job burnout, and may even lead to a greater risk of heart disease. There’s even some recent research to suggest that emotion suppression is connected to an increased risk of breast cancer. To say the least, not metabolizing our emotions is making us sick. 

How to Recognize Work Burnout and Bottled-Up Emotions 

One of the simplest ways to notice things aren’t alright is to note how you’re feeling Sunday night. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you dread walking into work the next day?
  • Do you hate the thought of turning on your computer and getting started?
  • Have you noticed that you aren’t motivated to work on projects or simply don’t put the same amount of time and energy into things as you once did?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good chance that these feelings stem from attempting to stifle anger, upset, hurt, or other difficult emotions.

A Mindful Response to Occupational Burnout

Caregiver burnout, teacher burnout, physician burnout, parental burnout, mental burnout, emotional burnout, pandemic burnout, employee burnout, academic burnout—these are just some terms coming to the forefront of the wider conversation on burnout. Chances are, if you work a high-stress job, work anywhere within health care (or even know someone who does), or work as a caregiver, some of these issues are all too familiar. By cultivating an awareness of these warning signs of burnout, we have a better chance to work with it and recover from it—both on an individual basis and, importantly, across the spectrum of our workplaces. 

Among the many necessary solutions for the burnout crisis, including organizational and policy changes, the practice of mindfulness has countless applications and proven benefits.

Mindfulness practice eases symptoms of burnout, while improving engagement, sense of meaning, and the ability to navigate difficult conversations and to feel empathy. The enhanced self-awareness and emotion regulation resulting from mindfulness practice also enhances teamwork and decision-making. Finally, mindfulness improves emotional intelligence, sleep, and overall resilience.

The benefits of mindfulness practice also extend to leaders and executives experiencing burnout and lead to improved focus, executive presence, strategic awareness, emotional-intelligence-based leadership skills, and effective communication.

How to Heal From Burnout

Just as it took time to develop burnout, it will take time to recover. Returning to a regular 40-hour workweek is usually not enough to make up for years of overworking yourself. Taking long chunks of time off, working part-time for a while, and learning new ways to cope with stress are often recommended solutions, but they’re not feasible solutions for everyone.

It is a long road back to a healthy, balanced life, and it starts with making incremental changes that protect your emotional and physical well-being. The earlier you start getting clear on what really matters to you, the better. 

Recognizing Early Signs and Preventing Burnout

Prolonged stress can play a critical role in burnout, and experts agree mindfulness can ease stress naturally. Since cortisol is a stress-triggered hormone, how a person manages stress can affect whatever the condition is. Research shows that regular mindfulness practice can support the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which reduces our threat sensitivity and grounds us through daily stress. “When we take time to stop and listen to our inner experiences,” says Michael Mantz, a psychiatrist in Santa Barbara, California, “we become more attuned to when our bodies are out of balance, and can respond efficiently.”

6 Ways to Balance Your Nervous System

1) Breathe

One method is the ocean breath: “You partially close the back of the throat on your exhale, which gently lengthens its duration,” says Mantz. He offers two guides: Pretend you’re fogging up a mirror, or breathing like Darth Vader. Increasing the length of your exhale strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system and eases an overactive fight- or-flight response.

2) Be Present

Learning to see thoughts as just thoughts, and not threats, means you can step out of panic mode and your adrenals will be activated less frequently. Linda E. Carlson, professor of oncology at the University of Calgary says to envision a river with two options: You can be in the water, swept away with the thoughts, or you can be on the bank, simply watching the river flow by.

3) Scan Your Body