Burnout: 12 Signs & 7 Tips to prevent

Burnout

During my sabbatical in late 2015, I attended a Conference in Amsterdam to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Potential Project and to meet fellow Mindfulness Consultants from around the world. The event included a weekend retreat with Allan Wallace, a globally renowned progressive scholar who studied with the Dalai Lama. It was a memorable week. My favourite section was the live testimonials from our clients where Senior Leaders shared the tangible impact our programs had on their own careers, their team’s performance and their personal lives.

After the conference I took the opportunity to visit relatives and friends in Europe. As a result I found out that a dear Brazilian childhood friend who’s been living in Holland for over 20 years as well as my French cousin, have both experienced burnout recently, leading them to take stress leave from work. I must confess I was quite shocked. Although I nearly experienced a burnout myself in 2010, I didn’t reach the stage of having to take leave from work.

I was relieved to know that they were both okay and feeling more balanced in their lives. Part of me was secretly pleased to have the opportunity for some deep and meaningful conversations about the topic with people so close to me. I was able to share my view on how Mindfulness can prevent burnout and support those who have gone through it, thus preventing its re-occurrence.

Burning out is a serious issue, but the lessons contained in the experience can be invaluable. Similar to people who go through near-death situations and then come out of those experiences inspired and motivated to enjoy life fully, I truly believe the experience of a burnout can serve us in a similar way and be a gift, a powerful wakeup call to lead us to a more meaningful life. After all, isn’t that what we all want?

So we’re on the same page, let’s define the term “burnout”.

Burnout is a type of psychological stress. Occupational burnout or job burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have dimensions of frustration or cynicism, and as a result, reduced efficacy within the workplace.

The term burnout in psychology was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 paper Staff Burn-Out.

Before we get into how to prevent burnout, let’s look into the 12 phases of the burnout process according to Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North:

1. The compulsion to prove oneself

Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. The desire to prove oneself in the workplace turns into compulsion.

2. Working harder

Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organisation that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus solely on work while they take on more work than they otherwise would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves to show that they are irreplaceable.

3. Neglecting their needs

Since they have to devote everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating and sleeping, start to be seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they threaten and reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.

4. Displacement of conflicts

They become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This may lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening. The first physical symptoms appear.

5. Revision of values

While falling into a state of denial of basic physical needs, perceptions and value systems change. Work consumes all energy, leaving none for friends and hobbies. The job is the new value system and people start to become emotionally blunt.

6. Denial of emerging problems

People may become intolerant and dislike being social. They may be seen as aggressive and sarcastic. Problems may be blamed on time pressure and all the work they have to do.

7. Withdrawal

Minimal social contact turns into isolation. Alcohol or drugs may be used as a release from obsessive working “by the book”. These people often have feelings of being without hope or direction.

8. Obvious behavioral changes

Co-workers, family, friends and others in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes in these people.

9. Depersonalisation

It is possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. Their view of life narrows to only seeing the moment and life turns to a series of mechanical functions.

10. Inner emptiness

They feel empty inside and may exaggerate activities such as overeating or sex to overcome these feelings.

11. Depression

Burnout may include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believes that life has no meaning.

12. Burnout syndrome

They collapse physically and emotionally and need immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.

Although Dr. Freudenberger’s theory described above is over 40 years old, it is still relevant in today’s workplace. I’ve designed this QUIZ to invite personal reflection and help spot early warning signs of burnout. Consider each question and answer as honestly as possible. Remember this is about your own well-being, so it’s worth giving it the attention it deserves.

1. In comparison to peers, do you consider yourself overly ambitious?

2. Is the organisation you work for a good fit for you in terms of culture and values?

3. Do you have trouble in delegating or saying “No” to more work even when you are already at your maximum capacity?

4. Do you feel time and energy poor?

5. Has your body started showing signs of stress (i.e. poor sleep and digestion)?

6. Are you highly identified with your job? How would you feel if you didn’t have your job to go to every day?

7. How would you rate your emotional/social intelligence?

8. Are you aware of your core values? Do you live by them?

9. Do you ever feel isolated? If yes, do you reach out to loved ones or hide?

10. Do you use alcohol and drugs regularly?

11. Do you occasionally rely on sex or food to address feelings of emptiness?

12. Do you occasionally feel depressed?

13. Do you often feel exhausted, hopeless or indifferent?

14. Do you lack of a life purpose?

15. Do you ever have suicidal thoughts?

I trust this tool will assist you to assess your current state of mind. In case you answered YES to most of the questions it might be wise to see your GP and discuss. If you answered YES to only a few you might want to adopt some of the tips below and keep monitoring the symptoms. Either way, engaging a coach or medical professional might assist you to gain clarity and design a plan to get you back on track to a more fulfilling and healthy lifestyle. For now here are some tips you can consider:

1. VALUES

Know what is important to you. Find out your core values. What is your passion? What makes your heart sing? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? There are many assessments out there. Here is a link to a Core values Self-Assessment I use with my clients.

2. ASSERTIVENESS

Learn key assertiveness techniques. Learn ways to say NO professionally and without compromising working relationships. You will earn respect and gain trust from your leaders and colleagues. It’s way better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. Find the right balance between stretching yourself and honoring your mental, physical and emotional limits.

3. HEALTHY BOUNDARIES

Once you know what matters most to you and master assertiveness, establishing healthy boundaries will be a no-brainer. If you are a “Yes girl” or a “Yes guy” remember whenever you say yes to extra work beyond your bandwidth, you are potentially saying NO to yourself or loved ones. We all get the same 24 hours a day and it’s your decision how you make use of that precious time. Be wise. Practice self-compassion. You must fill your cup first then you can be of service to others. In the long run, burning out will put strain on your most important relationships. It’s a vicious cycle.

4. MINDFULNESS

Over the last decade literally thousands of scientific articles has been written on the personal and professional benefits of mindfulness practice so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. If you are curious, send me a message and I will happily send you specific articles on topics that interest you. For now I highly-highly-highly recommend you to download an app like Potential Project and invest 10 minutes a day practicing mindfulness. Just do it! In as little as 3 weeks, you and those around you, will start seeing positives changes in your behavior, mood and energy levels.

5. SUPPORT NETWORK

Get support. Let your partner or closer friends know what’s happening in your inner world. If you are not comfortable with that option or don’t think they’ll understand then speak to a professional. I can’t stress enough the need to talk about what you are going through. If you feel you just need a sounding board so you can brain dump your concerns, a counselor would do the job. Perhaps your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? It is usually free and is absolutely confidential. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Remember these programs are there for a reason. Employee wellness is important culturally and economically within companies, so these programs are created for everyone’s benefit.

If you are keen to do more intensive self-development, gain clarity, find your blind spots and be challenged on your current thinking patterns, a coach would be the best option. Lastly if you are aware that the root cause of what you are experiencing goes back to your early life, like when you were 1-7 years old, then you might want to discuss with your GP first. No matter what you choose, asking for help has a hugely positive effect on your well-being. The help will be there. Just ask.

6. MOVEMENT

Get your body moving. Science says it and you know it, when you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, the feel-good natural drug. As a yoga teacher I am obviously biased and highly recommend activities such as yoga, taichi and qigong. But really anything that gets you moving your body and getting you out of your head and into your body will do the job. It doesn’t take much, just consistency. Your body will love you for it and you’ll see quick results.

7. FOOD & WATER

You’ve heard this hundreds of times, I know. Still, the basics of food and water are often overlooked when we’re stressed and we sometimes make silly choices (myself included). You are what you eat (and drink) so invest in high quality food. Eat fresh, seasonal and local whenever possible. I advocate for organic products but that is a topic for another article. Sticking to fresh, local and seasonal is an excellent start.

Paul Chek, former Chicago Bulls wellness coach, often says “Considering that the raw material for your eyeballs is the food you eat, it’s not really wise to bargain…. Do bargain for anything else but not for food.”. Regarding water, avoid tap water, get a filter to eliminate fluoride and chlorine.

I suggest you start slowly and pick one of the above tips that most resonates with you. Embrace it for 21 days, then measure the impact. Use your body as a laboratory.

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions or need help with any of the above, I’d love to help. Also, go ahead and do your random act of kindness for today by sharing this article with that friend who you suspect could be at risk of burnout.

Reference articles

Cost of Burnout: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2016/03/04/heres-what-burnout-costs-you/#e043d3244938

7 signs of burnout: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/30/are-you-burned-out-seven-signs-youve-lost-your-spark-at-work-and-how-to-rekindle-it/?utm_term=.8764826c47d3

Burnout syndrome: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072470/

Occupational burnout: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_burnout

Research: https://www.journals.elsevier.com/burnout-research

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