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  • What is Burnout? What to Look For & Ways to Avoid It

  • “Ladies and Gentlemen, in the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.”

    Have you ever wondered why the inflight safety instructions give warning to “secure your mask first before assisting others”? Simply put, we cannot help others if we are not helping ourselves first. Let’s talk about a real issue, an issue that if ignored, will turn into a major issue and can wreak havoc in our lives. An issue that we will all experience at one point in our lives and that issue is burnout.

    So, what is burnout? Are you feeling burnt out? The best way to prevent burnout is to identify the symptoms before they start, identifying the symptoms as they begin to occur before they get out of hand. Today, we are going to dissect the definition that Psychology Today gives, so let’s dive in! Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Together, these symptoms lead to an inability to successfully function on a personal and professional level.

    Signs associated with physical and emotional exhaustion may include but are certainly not limited to, chronic fatigue, insomnia, impaired concentration and attention, physical symptoms, increased illness, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, and anger.

    In the early stages of burnout, chronic fatigue might look something like lack of energy and feeling tired more than normal, so you go to bed early, but you don’t wake up feeling refreshed. You’re dragging your feet and find you need extra time to get ready and out the door in the morning. In the later stages that fatigue becomes a physical and psychological state of pure and complete exhaustion. You feel completely drained and everything you attempt to do takes a joint effort. You do as little as possible throughout the day to conserve what little energy you have and it’s difficult to get out of bed causing you to call in sick. This is the type of fatigue that results in a sense of dread for what lies ahead of you on any given day.

    In the early stages of burnout, insomnia may be a problem only one or a few nights each week. Although you feel tired, you may find it difficult to fall asleep. If you do fall asleep, it may be disturbed sleep; or you may wake up in the middle of the night or earlier than you need to. Often, this trouble sleeping relates to unrelenting thoughts about the overwhelming amount of work that you have to do and whether you'll be able to get it done. In the later stages, insomnia may become a nightly relentless cycle. And regardless of how exhausted you may feel, there may be nights that you just can't sleep at all.

    The next sign associated with physical and mental exhaustion is impaired concentration and attention. This destructive duo can lead to a host of cognitive problems, but the most common are concentration, attention difficulties, and forgetfulness. You may find yourself having to re-read things or asking colleagues to repeat themselves. Because you can't focus, it takes longer to get your work done, so things begin to pile up, causing more stress. At its worse, these symptoms prevent you from getting anything done, and you simply can't keep up.

    Physical symptoms that accompany burnout can include chest pains, heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting, tension headaches, migraines, shortness of breath, and stomach pain, which may interfere in your day-to-day functioning, making it difficult to get work done or even go to work. And of course, all serious physical symptoms, especially chest pains or difficulty breathing, should first be evaluated by a physician to rule out any medical explanations.

    Because chronic stress depletes and weakens one's body, those who are experiencing burnout are more vulnerable to infections, colds, the flu, and other immune system disorders. The worse the burnout is, the more vulnerable you're likely to be, and the longer it's likely to take you to recover from simple infections, like a common cold.

    Chronic anxiety is common to cases of burnout. Early on, the anxiety may be experienced as nagging feelings of tension, worry, and edginess, which may interfere with your ability to attend to certain tasks. Physically, your heart may pound, and your muscles may feel tight. Over time, the anxiety may become so severe that it interferes with your ability to go to work or take care of your responsibilities at home. In some cases, the anxiety may become so severe that it results in full blown panic attacks which plague over four million Americans according to The Anxiety Network.

    Although feeling sad from time to time is normal, in cases of burnout, depression is more than just temporary sadness. In the early stages of burnout, you may notice that you're having more bad days than good. You also may feel like you have no energy, or you may feel irritable and restless. In its most severe form, you may feel trapped.

    Signs associated with feelings of detachment and cynicism includes loss of enjoyment, pessimism, isolation, and detachment.

    In the early stages of burnout, the loss of enjoyment you feel may be only for work. You don't enjoy going to work, and when you get there you can't wait to leave. Let’s be honest, we all have days like this, don’t we? But, as stress increases, the loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of your life, including the time you spend with family and friends. At work, you may become preoccupied with thoughts of how you can avoid projects or how you can escape work altogether.

    Burnout makes you feel like nothing is going to turn out well. While at one time, you may have been a person who sees the "glass half full," burnout may cause you to feel as if the "glass is half empty," or in some cases, completely empty. This type of negativity is likely to result in negative self-talk, such as feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. It also may carry over to others, feeling as if no one cares or that everyone is out for themselves. This may lead to a lack of trust toward coworkers, family, and friends, increasing tension at home and in the workplace and separating you from social support sources that may once have served as a buffer to your stress.

    Isolation may start out as a mild resistance to socializing, such as not wanting to go to lunch with a co-worker or friend. As burnout worsens, you may begin to feel more and more like being alone. Colleagues dropping by to say hello may become an annoyance, and you may find yourself closing your door to block others out. You make excuses not to go out to lunch, or you search for ways to get out of meetings. In the most severe cases, you may get angry at people who approach you. You may even lock your door to keep people away or come in early or stay late to avoid interactions with colleagues and possibly even family members.

    Feelings of apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness, increased irritability, and lack of performance and productivity are all signs associated with a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

    In the beginning, feelings of apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness may seem like nothing is going right or give a sense of "What's the use?" As time goes on, these feelings may become debilitating, making it seem as if nothing is worth doing, as if there is no point in even getting out of bed.

    In cases of burnout, irritability is often the result of frustration over feeling ineffective and useless, and disappointment over decreased productivity, worsening performance, and a general sense that you're not able to do things like you used to do them. You may snap at people and overreact to minor things. In the early stages, irritability may create a falling out in professional and personal relationships. In later stages, it may destroy a career as well as marriages and partnerships.

    Despite long work hours, the symptoms of burnout prevent you from being able to produce the way you used to, which results in incomplete projects and a stack of work that just keeps piling up.

    Are the warning lights going off? Has the oxygen mask appeared in front of you? To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bad does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. Just breathe. Take time to yourself. Get away. Reflect. Start with a weekend, that’s at least two consecutive days, where you do absolutely nothing but eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and simply be. If your Monday morning comes and you are not refreshed and renewed, you are experiencing burnout and it is time for a vacation. Take two weeks, and repeat the steps listed above, eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and simply be. Now this time add things you once enjoyed, read, swim, sunbathe, visit with friends and family, garden. Do whatever it is that makes you happy. If upon returning to your job after your two-week vacay you find you do not feel refreshed or renewed and you have a sense of doom and dread returning to work, it’s time to make some changes. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it. Sometimes in life, we are that child or someone who requires assistance, don’t be afraid to ask someone to secure your mask for you, just make sure they have their mask secured firmly first. And remember, we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves first.