There’s stress, and then there’s burnout.
We all experience stress on the job from time to time, but how do you know when you’re headed for something more serious?
Burnout is defined as a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, and it is not to be taken lightly. It’s been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression, so it’s important to know some of the warning signs — and what to do about them.
You get sick… a lot.
Physical exhaustion can lead to your immune system being depleted and not functioning as well. If you seem to catch every single cold and flu that goes around the office (or your kid’s school) it could be that your body is trying to tell you to slow down and take a break. It may also be a symptom of the fact that you’re working so much you don’t have time to take care of yourself, eating well and exercising enough.
You feel disengaged at work or procrastinate excessively.
If you avoid the water cooler, break room, and meetings as much as you can or even start shirking your job responsibilities, this is a major warning sign of burnout. This can also be seen if you seem to have a shorter attention span than usual or lack of focus.
You struggle with anxiety or self-criticism.
Feeling like there’s never enough time to get it all done? Like you’re an imposter? That you’re doomed to failure? These sorts of feelings are associated with burnout — whether they’re true or not.
You overreact to everything.
If you suddenly find yourself screaming at coworkers, taking suggestions or criticisms very personally, or getting very upset over small problems, this too can be a sign of burnout. This is the emotional exhaustion at play, and you aren’t able to regulate your reactions to things.
You’re always exhausted.
You barely have the energy to get out of bed in the morning, let alone get through your day. You’re trying to pep yourself up with a continuous drip of coffee and sugar. And you can’t remember the last time you felt rested. This kind of physical exhaustion may also be accompanied by insomnia or anxiety dreams that leave you restless — or just a general lack of sleep because you’re working too much or too hard.
You’re always distracted while eating.
When was the last time you sat down at a table to eat a meal — without doing anything else? And no, your desk does not count. Often, when people reach burnout, they may be trying to do too much at once, like eating breakfast on their commute, lunch at their desk, and dinner while answering emails. Or, you may be eating a lot while distracted to try to keep your energy levels up.
You feel numbness or try to numb your feelings.
Serious side-effects of burnout can include addictive behaviours including overuse of alcohol, food, drugs, binge watching television or video games — anything that numbs us from our feelings of exhaustion or anxiety. On the flip side, if you feel numb all the time regardless, you can’t get excited or feel happy or sad about things, that’s another serious warning sign of impending burnout and possible depression.
If you can self-identify more than a few of these symptoms, you may be dangerously close to burnout, and it’s important to take some steps to mitigate it immediately before you experience any more serious consequences:
- Take care of the basics: make it a priority to eat healthy foods, sleep at least 7 hours a night, and drink plenty of water during the day.
- Make time to exercise. Even a 10-minute walk counts.
- Make a list of things that stress you out. Take your time with it. Then, next to each item, think of a way to reduce the stress around that thing.
- Just say no. Don’t take on any new projects or responsibilities right now.
- Delegate as many things as possible. Ask for help from your friends, family, and coworkers.
- Set clear boundaries between work and home. Don’t bring work home, don’t check email, don’t take phone calls outside work hours.
- Reward yourself for effort, not outcome. Find healthy ways to reward yourself when you put in a good effort.
The best thing you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed is put together a concrete plan of how to fix it: write down the exact steps you will take, and then schedule them in your calendar to make sure it happens.
Burnout is not to be taken lightly, so if you are worried that you might have many of the signs, get some support, take time to help yourself, and prevent a full-blown case of burnout before it happens.