By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about burnout – what burnout is, how to identify if you’re burnt-out or at risk of burning out, and what to do to address it. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
Do you ever find yourself struggling to cope with your work and feeling emotionally exhausted, like nothing you do at work matters? Either you’re working for an evil corporation, or you’re potentially on a path towards burnout (or, quite possibly, both of those things might be true).
I’ve talked about stress before (in Episode 8) but today I’m talking about burnout, which is what can happen when high levels of stress continue on for a long period of time. Burnout can have serious consequences for your health, so it’s in your best interests to do something about it – in this episode, I’ll discuss ways to prevent it, as well as what to do if burnout is happening to you now.
What is burnout and how does it affect mental health and wellbeing?
Burnout is physical or mental collapse – or both – caused by overwork or stress. Left untreated, it can lead to serious mental and physical health issues and may make other underlying issues significantly worse.
Burnout isn’t specifically considered a mental illness on its own, but it can often be a symptom of deeper issues including depression or anxiety. The World Health Organisation (WHO) takes it seriously enough that in its most recent International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), it labels it as an “occupational phenomenon” and defines it as, “a syndrome… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (WHO 2019). Burnout is considered a factor that can influence your health status and it often drives people to contact health services.
A recent study by Gallup shared in an article for Forbes (2019, read it here) identified that nearly two-thirds of full-time workers surveyed experience burnout in their jobs. In the same article, another report was quoted (this one by Ginger, called 2019 Workforce Attitudes Towards Behaviour Health Report) shared some horrendous statistics, which I’m going to quote directly:
- 81% say stress impacts their work negatively, manifesting in a range of symptoms from fatigue and anxiety to physical ailments and missed work.
- 48% have cried at work, and 50% have missed at least one day of work.
- 81% report barriers to using behavioral health services; including the limited number of providers covered by their plans, lack of time to get help, confusing program options and stigma.
Aside from reducing your productivity and making it harder to do your job effectively, burnout can have far-reaching consequences for your mental and physical health. Continued stress and burnout can lead to mood disorders like depression (source: Black Dog Institute).
Chronic stress, which can lead to anxiety or burnout (or both), is dangerous because it causes your body to produce elevated levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol; over time, consistently-high levels of these hormones can affect your organs, any may cause damage to your heart which can shorten your life expectancy (source: MedicineNet).
Putting aside the more serious health risks, let’s talk about the way it can make you feel about your work – the place where we spend so much of our time and where a lot of our sense of identity and purpose can be tied up in. Burnout can make life feel really shitty, because it might feel like your work is meaningless; or, you may be struggling just to go to work every day and do what you have to do to get paid, then coming home and collapsing because you’re physically and emotionally exhausted. When you don’t feel great about particular aspects of your life, that’s when your sense of life satisfaction goes out the window – and things can get out of hand quickly unless you do something about it.
I’ve talked many times in this podcast about the breakdown I had in late 2011 which then resulted in nearly seven years of severe depression and anxiety, and for a while there I was suicidal. There were lots of reasons for my breakdown – my work, family stuff, poor lifestyle choices, and serious financial problems being the main ones – but it was extreme stress in my job that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. One day I came to work, discovered something simple I had asked one of my team members to do hadn’t been done, and something just snapped; I remember going into my office, closing the door, putting my head in my hands and thinking, “I just can’t do this anymore,” and then leaving the office early that morning because I just could not function. I got in my car and then everything went blank until later that day when somehow I was at home – still, to this day, more than eight years later, I have absolutely no idea where that time went or what happened or how I managed to drive myself home. After that I spent weeks going back and forth between severe panic attacks and being a complete zombie, just sitting and staring at a blank wall for hours on end. Somewhere in that period everything that I had not dealt with, all of my unresolved mental health stuff, came rushing to the surface and my life was never the same as a result, because that’s when depression and anxiety took over – resulting in a few of the worst years of my life (but also, in hindsight, the best – because it led me to what I’m doing now). All of that stuff – from initial breakdown to being suicidal – happened in just two weeks… so when I say that burnout can have really serious consequences for your mental and physical health, I speak from personal experience!
There is only so much we can each handle, and every person is different in terms of what load they can carry. What that limit is for each of us is irrelevant, because we shouldn’t be pushing ourselves to get even remotely close to the limit in the first place. I’ve worked in several places where everyone does 10-12+ hour days and it’s utterly ridiculous; our jobs are something to pay our bills so that we can live our lives, not what we should be defining ourselves by and certainly not something that we should be mortgaging our long-term health and wellbeing on.
How do you identify that burnout is happening or if you’re at risk of burning out?
Burnout can happen when you’re highly stressed and exhausted for a prolonged period. I talked in Episode 8 about stress (read/listen to it here) and I mentioned that it is a symptom of bigger issues going on in your life. If you are feeling stressed about your job, it might be that the job isn’t right for you or that you’re not right for the job (and yes, they are two very different things and both equally relevant!). It could also be that you like the job itself but not your employer. It could be that the workload is too much for you at this stage due to things going on outside of work, or it could be one of hundreds or thousands of other possible reasons.
Why it’s happening is something that you need to figure out, and I’ve talked a lot in previous episodes about being honest and self-aware with yourself. That means taking ownership of the things that are within your direct control, and either accepting or letting go of the things that are out of your control.
Let me just say this one thing before we go any further: I don’t believe that burnout is the same as hating your job, because if you hate your job (or employer) then you only have two choices: accept it, or do something about it (i.e. Find another job)… but don’t just blame it on burnout. Burnout may be associated with hating your job, but it’s much more than just that.
So how do you know if burnout is happening or if you might be headed down that path? Common warning signs are:
- Feeling tired and drained most of the time
- Getting sick often
- Regular headaches
- Frequent muscle pain
- Changes in appetite or sleep habits
- Loss of motivation
- Withdrawing from your responsibilities
- Feeling helpless and trapped
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
The article quoted above by HelpGuide (read it here) made a really good distinction between stress and burnout: stress is when you’re dealing with too much, whereas burnout is about ‘not enough’ – “feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring… people experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations.” While chronic stress can lead to anxiety disorders, burnout can lead to detachment and depression.
How to prevent burnout happening (because prevention is better than cure)
If you’re finding yourself concerned that stress is becoming more and more frequent for you, now is the time to do something about it before it gets any bigger and turns into burnout – because prevention is better than cure! Some things that you can do are:
- Reassess your job – if your job is starting to get to you, work out why. Is it the employer or the job itself? Do you like most of the tasks required of you but not all of them? Or, does your job make you feel like the life is being sucked out of you? Working out what it is that’s driving these feelings is the first step – because to deal with anything, you need to understand the root cause. There’s no point jumping ship to a new employer if it’s the industry you’re in that’s making you miserable; you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Identify the root cause of your feelings and deal with that. I talked about digging deep in many of my past episodes – have a listen to or read of Episode 7: Baggage for a process (‘Five Why’s’) to dig into what’s going on deep under the surface, so that you can identify and address the root cause of your feelings before you completely burn out
- Take action now – don’t keep putting things off until later; that’s how disasters happen! The crew of the Titanic received multiple warnings about large amounts of ice in the area but they kept going, and evidence suggests that the first officer may have hesitated for thirty seconds before ordering a course change when alerted to the iceberg dead ahead… you know, the one that ultimately sank the ship, resulting in the deaths of 1,496 people. If you’re getting warning signs now, change course immediately. Your body and mind are telling you to do something different, so ignore them at your peril!
- Find meaning and purpose outside of work – if your work isn’t making you feel fulfilled, you might have to look outside of work to find meaning and purpose; e.g. You could volunteer your time, or join a community group focused on a field you’re passionate about such as art or theatre or the Spice Girls… whatever works for you. If you are expecting all of your meaning and purpose to come from your work, then I’m sorry to have to tell you that work is just work – you can certainly do meaningful work that makes a difference and makes you feel good about yourself, but at the end of the day it’s still just a job and nobody is irreplaceable, so don’t tie your entire sense of meaning up in one job, especially because you never know what may happen in the future – companies don’t last forever, jobs don’t last forever, so you need to put your own interests first.
- Reframe your thinking: work to live, don’t live to work – further to my last point: a job is just a job! Yes, some jobs can be fun, but I’d wager that nearly every job has at least some element in it that’s not great. For example, if you enjoy managing people and helping them to grow and achieve the best they can in their own job then that’s great, but what happens when you have to discipline one of the people you lead or, worse still, sack someone? Your job is not who you are, it’s what you do to pay the bills. If the focus of your life is work, work, work, then you’re doing life wrong. Life is for living. Do what you need to do to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head, and make the most of this one life that you have. Nobody in their right mind ever said on their death bed, “Wow! I wish I had have worked more hours!” – so work to live, not the other way around.
- Reassess your relationships at work and at home – if you spend your time with negative people, sooner or later that will rub off on you! Have you ever worked somewhere where there’s that mean group of people who sit in the lunchroom and judge everybody and everything? If you spend time with those people you’re going to feel shitty about everything. Choose to cultivate relationships with positive people, and distance yourself from negative people.
- Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms – we often do things that are bad for us as ways of coping with deep-seated unhappiness. The obvious ones are abusing substances like alcohol or drugs, but there are lots of others: over-eating, under-eating, over-exercising, under-exercising, excessive shopping, or relying on expensive trinkets to make us happy temporarily – I hate to break it to you, but AirPods or that Balenciaga bag are not going to fill the hole in your soul. Instead, find healthy ways to cope – balance and moderation in all things. Healthy diet and exercise, healthy unwinding strategies like meditation and mindfulness, taking regular time to relax and unwind, pursuing leisure activities and hobbies… these things are always going to have much better results than drinking or eating your feelings, or other self-destructive behaviours
And as always, if you’re struggling to work through and process how you’re feeling about things: talk to someone. You could work with a coach to help you to identify different ways to approach day-to-day things that you’re finding challenging (and yes, I offer coaching services – have a look at the Coaching page of the website for information), or if you’re experiencing more serious mental health issues like depression or anxiety then you could work with a therapist who will help you to process more complex issues. You might even find that just a regular catch-up with a friend or family member gives you an outlet to vent what you need to vent, but be wary of relying on that because the feedback you get probably isn’t going to be objective – a friend is much less likely to call you on things that you’re doing that aren’t helping the situation than someone who doesn’t have the emotional connection with you like that. Either way – you are not alone, so talk to someone!
What to do if you’re experiencing burnout now
So, what do you do if you’re experiencing burnout now? All the tips I shared in the lat section for preventing burnout – reassessing your job, taking action now, finding meaning and purpose outside of work, reframing your thinking about work vs life, reassessing your relationships, and avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms, are even more relevant now than they are in the prevention stage – because if you’re burnt-out now, the time for action is yesterday, and since you probably don’t have a time machine then the second-best time for action is right now. Not in five days or five weeks – NOW.
If you are burnt-out and feeling helpless, hopeless and trapped, you need to talk to someone because those feelings are quite likely to spiral out of control very, very quickly if you don’t do something about them. I mean, I don’t want to scare the hell out of you, but I also want to make sure we’re completely clear here about the severity of the situation. Burnout = bad for you. If you don’t do something now, it’s going to impact on your life and the lives of the people you love. So go and see your doctor immediately, or make an urgent appointment with a therapist, or pick up the phone and talk to someone – on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health website there’s a ‘Resources’ tab which lists phone support services in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA (find it here). Talk to someone, and do it now. You’ll also find tips about finding and maintaining hope in last week’s episode, Episode 17: Hope (read/listen here).
If work is getting to be too much, take time off. You are not a martyr and your health must come first, so don’t drag yourself to work even if you’re on the verge of collapse – because you probably will collapse at some point. Take at least a few days off to focus on yourself with support from your doctor; if you have leave or can afford it more time off, take longer. Take as long as you can and as long as you need. If that means that you might need to tighten your belt for a while to allow you to spend longer away from work, then needs must.
Further to that; reassess where you are in life. Now, don’t make any hasty decisions here, but if you’re burnt-out then things can’t continue the way they are. Either your job needs to change or you need to find a different employer, or you might need to reconsider your career entirely. That might mean having to re-evaluate everything – and if so, then that’s okay. I mean, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater or make sudden changes that you haven’t fully thought through; for example, don’t blame your partner for what’s going on inside you and then decide to leave them at the first sign of trouble without at least trying to work through whatever is going on. But do take the time to seriously reassess where you’re at so you can work out where you want to be (and how to get there), because things cannot stay the way they are.
And finally… be honest with yourself about the situation. I often say that in any situation you can only ever do something about those three elements that you have direct control over: your words, your actions, and your feelings. If you have no direct control over the situation then you have three choices: accept it, change how you relate to it, or let it go. Sometimes that means walking away; other times, that means letting go of what you thought it was (or what you thought it should be). Nobody can make you miserable but you – yes, other people can say and do things that hurt you or that make it hard to do your job, but only you can choose what you do with those words or actions. If you’re feeling burnt-out, don’t let the way you feel about your work take away the good stuff elsewhere in your life. If you’re not happy with the situation, change it or change your part in it. You can do it and things will eventually get better, but it takes courage and it takes action. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
What it all boils down to is this: if you’re experiencing burnout symptoms like fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, loss of motivation, getting sick all the time, etc, etc… these things are happening because your body and mind are telling you that something is wrong. Why we think we can just ignore our own needs and push through things like burnout is beyond me, because our physical and mental health and wellbeing should always be our number one priority. There are plenty of things that you can do to prevent or address burnout, but only you can do them – in any situation you have a choice, and that choice is to choose how you respond to the situation. Make the decision today to choose to put your health needs above any other concern – because your life is precious, and there are many people who love you and who need you to be around. Burnout can actually be a catalyst for positive change in your life; it might not seem like it when you’re in it, but in hindsight you’ll find that it forced you to confront things that weren’t in your best interests and to make changes for the better.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: burnout is like the unruly child of severe exhaustion and lack of motivation. If you are feeling disconnected from your work or experiencing burnout symptoms – whether physical, mental, or both – you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to take immediate action. Make changes, and ask for help – because you are not alone, and you can and will get through this.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Burnout happens when you consistently push yourself too hard without effectively managing the consequences of high levels of stress
- If you leave it for too long, burnout can result in serious long-term health issues including depression
- Dealing with burnout requires you to take a long, hard look at the root cause of your issues and then to address those, preferably with the support of a professional… even if you’re not burnt-out at the moment but are seeing some of the signs, you can and should do something about it – but please, don’t put it off. Do something now.
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is by an anonymous author, and it is:
“Burnout is not about giving too much of yourself. It’s about trying to give what you do not possess.“Anonymous
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily)
Next week I’ll be talking about family – I’ll be discussing how to establish healthy relationships with your family and how to manage dysfunctional relationships. I have a lot to say on this subject and plenty of personal experience with the dysfunctional stuff, so I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time.
On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the Subscribe page on the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox every week.
I mentioned earlier in the episode that I now offer coaching services; if you are interested, I offer coaching to clients anywhere in the world via video conference – have a look at the ‘coaching’ section of the website for more information and my rates. Visit: www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching
Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out! Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health. Thanks!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.