Recognising the signs of burnout

Recognising the signs of burnout

Even in a typical year – one not involving a pandemic – it is not surprising at this time of year to come across colleagues, friends and family that are exhibiting the signs of burnout. You may even be experiencing it yourself.  It can be easy to write off the fatigue and difficulty focusing on the challenges that the pandemic and lockdowns brought. But burnout has long been a recognised condition by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who define burnout as:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

No two people experience stress and pressure the same, so understanding your own limits is vital. More importantly, understanding what we need to build into our day-to-day lives to sustain our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, is key to be able to maintain positive mental wellbeing. 

Burnout results from the experience of being a boiling frog. You were focused on your work, juggling life, family, soldiering on to keep everything together and notice when the pressure was starting to wear away at your ability to focus, process new information or regulate your emotions quite as well as you usually do. Stress had became normalised even without a pandemic.

There was already the shared pressure from economic and technology changes across industries. The common one for many people at this end of the year is you’d forgotten to take a holiday this year, as life’s juggle just rolled on from week to week, and month to month. Closed borders and lockdown removed the option for many people who didn’t want to take a holiday at home. 

Signs of burnout generally occur slowly over a sustained period of time. In the early stages we can mask or focus our efforts to push through but, over time, we experience symptoms that can no longer be ignored.

Even though what we individually need to sustain us is unique, the physiological changes and signs are common.  The earlier you can recognise them the easier it is to remedy the situation, and a shorter period is needed to recover. 

Early warning signs

We all need and experience some periods of stress where adrenalin peaks to support us through the stress and then dissipates allowing our bodies and brain to recover. If, however, the stressful period continues for an extended period, stress then becomes negative with your body operating on cortisol and adrenalin.

Signs that you need to make adjustments to your lifestyle, work practices:

  • headaches and niggling colds that you can’t shake off
  • looking for extra caffeine or sugar to boost your energy
  • increased negative internal chatter either aimed at yourself or others
  • general mood flatter than usual
  • becoming less patient

Signs that you need to take decisive action to support your health and wellbeing:

  • Difficulty understanding new complex information
  • Difficulty focusing and easily losing concentration
  • Broken sleep and wake during the night worrying
  • Feel jittery or sense your feet aren’t firmly on the ground
  • Catastrophise or worry about small things
  • Feel nauseous 
  • Become overly emotional without it connecting to a particular event
  • Start to avoid social situations that you’d usually look forward to

If you feel some of these symptoms may relate to you, then it maybe time to do a review of how you are supporting your mental health and avoiding the risk of burnout.

Time to consider

  • Do I get adequate rest and sleep
  • Do I have adequate mental breaks from my work after each day
  • Do I make time for things that are important to me outside work
  • Do I do adequate exercise
  • Do I have a healthy diet
  • Am I drinking too much
  • Does the culture at work or work practices suit my personality
  • Have I taken a break recently
  • Can I talk to someone about how I’m feeling

Supporting our mental and physical wellbeing has to be engrained into our day to day lifestyle to support a long and productive life. It is very easy to get caught up in the endless task list and negative news cycle and before we know it, we’re experiencing some or all of the symptoms of burnout. 

If you haven’t done it lately, stop and do a review of your typical week. Is there time allocated for planning and eating well, physical activity, connecting with people you care about and rest?

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.