Fight the Burnout


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Umberto Salvagnin.

In our work-driven culture, we tend to refer to our professional lives as “the grind.” We face Monday with dismay, and acknowledgement that the weekend is over. On Tuesday this bereavement often lingers until the next day. We celebrate Wednesday–using the term celebrate loosely–as surpassing the week’s “hump day.” On Thursday we bite our nails with the anticipation of a signal that relaxation is imminent: the dawning of Friday, when only a few hours separates us from what really matters–a brand new weekend.

If the above weekday chronicle sounds familiar, it’s possible that you may be suffering from burnout in the workplace. An overly cynical attitude in regards to work-related tasks and obligations is a warning sign of impending burnout. As stress and resilience expert Paula Davis Laack explains to BTR, “Burnout is a work-related process of chronic stress and disengagement.”

She has written about her own experience with severe burnout while working as a lawyer in her new ebook, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint For Burnout Prevention.

“The first important step in understanding burnout is to recognize its insidious nature,” says Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, a psychologist and author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout.

Davis Laack explains, “One tell-tale sign is chronic exhaustion–consistently feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Another one is feeling emotionally cynical; everything’s bugging you and you just want to push people away. When you’re burning out, every curveball is a major crisis.”

Bourg Carter tells BTR that with a typical case of burnout, there are three major effects: physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.

“The definition of burnout centers around its psychological toll on workers,” says Bourg Carter. “To use the analogy of a high-performance car, unlike a tire blowing out, which is instant and obvious, burnout is more of a slow leak. It’s a cumulative process that in most cases takes years, or even decades, to fully materialize.”

Burnout can begin to eat away at a person’s state of wellbeing without any awareness of what’s happening. The process of burnout is often slow and deceptive in this way and its consequences are gradual. While an individual may not realize that their perpetual fatigue and negativity are symptoms of burnout, their friends and family are much more likely to notice their significant shift in attitude.

“One of the first indicators that someone is stressed to other people is the behavioral changes they see,” Bourg Carter explains, “So, whereas a husband may not notice his wife’s heart palpitations or chronic indigestion, he almost certainly will notice changes in the way she’s acting.” According to Bourg Carter common changes in behavior are altered eating patterns, increased alcohol or drug use, hyperemotionality, isolation, poor concentration, and forgetfulness.

However, Davis Laack says, “Burnout manifests itself differently with each person.”

Millennials are prone to experiencing burnout earlier in their lives than workers from previous generations due to their increasing reliance on technology.

“The speed at which we work and live our lives creates a huge difference,” says Davis Laack. “A lot of Millennials are already dragging and having anxiety over their careers at the age of 25. The effects of burnout are happening earlier to younger generations because of the fact that we are all addicted to our devices.”

Bourg Carter concurs that younger professionals are more inclined to feel pressured from the technology surrounding them. She tells BTR, “Today, it seems normal to have a handful of gadgets speaking to us, sometimes all at the same time. We’ve become conditioned to respond to all the bells, dings, and whistles as quickly as we can when they go off.”

In order to prevent burnout from striking, it’s vital to make a habit of relaxing and rewinding, especially at the end of the workday. It’s also extremely helpful to take advantage of breaks and time spent away from the desk.

Photo courtesy of Mindaugas Danys.

“Research suggests that you need to take a break at work every 90-120 minutes in order to stay in peak performance,” Davis Laack tells BTR. “A simple pause strategy is to set an alarm on your phone and take a break to grab coffee, walk outside, or listen to music while in the office.”

Time spent alone can be “the greatest gift you give yourself,” says Bourg Carter. She recommends turning moments of solitude into a routine practice. “Literally mark off time in your day planner for spending time with yourself. Any time that you can spend alone to reboot, meditate, focus, relax, create, produce, or think deeply is important.”

Achieving a steady work-life balance is essential for a person’s health. Your own physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing should remain a top priority. Everything else–texts, emails, errands–are not matters upon which life or death depends, and should not be treated as such.

“Not everything you do needs to be perfect,” Bourg Carter advises. “Stay grounded in reality. Perfection only exists in fiction.”