If you’ve been experiencing any or all of these, welcome to the club. The last few months of the year in the lead up to Christmas are typically the ones where we’re desperately trying to tie up all those loose ends, complete outstanding assignments, organise a break away with the family and finish off the year, and we’re beyond tired.
This year it’s different. We’re on our knees.
It feels worse because we were already exhausted from living through a global pandemic (and it isn’t finished yet). The disruption caused by the risk of infection has required the rapid adaption to comply to new requirements to adhere to lockdowns, quarantine, face masks and hand sanitiser, more acceptance of possible permanent change to how and where we do our work and live our lives. We live with heightened uncertainty and anxiety about the economy, job security, the future and our loved ones.
Many people I’ve spoken to haven’t taken any time off since the beginning of the year.
Disrupted travel plans or deferred events have led us to forget that despite everything we still need time off to rest and restore, even when working from home (and possibly more so).
A staycation, while not the holiday you initially planned for, can still be hugely beneficial to help you relax and defrag from all our usual stuff that takes up all our time.
Pushing ourselves too hard for too long without a break is not only tiring, but we can also lose interest in our work. It now feels a drudge, a drain on our energy and we wish we were somewhere else, anywhere but here.
If your mojo is missing and it can’t be found, even though you’ve searched behind the cushions of the sofa and under the bed, this may be a red flag heralding the beginning of burnout.
Unlike a bushfire, which takes off rapidly, scorching the earth and leaving behind a stark and bleak black landscape, burnout is a slow burn. You probably haven’t even noticed it starting, because we’re all busy, we’re all doing the best we can and when the expectation is that during times of adversity we just knuckle down and get on with it, we can miss those signs that it’s all getting too much.
We are human, yet we often treat ourselves as machine.
Burnout is a term frequently bandied about a bit like calling every cold or viral infection “the ‘flu.”
But burnout should not be treated lightly.
There are different stages of burnout, with brownout often considered the first stage:
Happy days. Your new job.
Do you remember how you felt when you started your new job? You’re excited, pumped and ready to do your very best. There are new routines and processes to get a handle on, but you’re super keen to create a good impression.
So, you’ve been in your new role a few months now. There is still a lot to learn and some days it can all feel a bit too much. While you’ve been given consideration for a couple of mistakes, you know you won’t be forgiven for making too many for much longer once the newbie title has worn off.
You’re no longer the newbie. You’re fully-fledged into your role and noticing that the habitual high expectations of others that you always give 110% (at minimum), stay late, arrive early and take on extra work without complaining is starting to wear a bit thin.
You’re fed up that you often miss out on getting a lunch break, you’re feeling taken for granted and under-appreciated for all the extra stuff you do. You’re not sleeping so well; you’re grinding your teeth at night and getting more frequent headaches and stomach pains.
Work has lost its lustre. You’re wondering if you’re still right for this role and whether you would be better off going elsewhere…
You never saw it coming but you’re beyond tired. Getting out of bed in the morning is getting hard. You’re dragging yourself into work exhausted even before the day has begun and you’re really not interested in what’s going on around you. You’ve stopped contributing to the team You’re resentful about staying late and missing out on important family time and events. You feel dissociated from the rest of your colleagues and are increasingly cynical about life in general.
All you want is crawl under the nearest rock and hope the world will leave you alone.
Sometimes burnout is accompanied by a mood disorder; anxiety, panic or depression, or a mixture of all three. Differentiating burnout which is the result of being exposed to chronic unmitigated stress that has gone beyond what you can handle is different from depression matters because they are treated differently.
How can you keep yourself safe from burnout?
This is about identifying how much you can cope with on a regular basis. While it’s not uncommon to have to take on extra work in times of emergency. This is not an acceptable long-term solution as we all have physiological and psychological limits beyond which we don’t function well.
Stress is a normal part of life. It allows us to step up to a new challenge with an excitement and eagerness to learn something new. The key is to manage your stress levels, so it doesn’t become the focus of your life on a daily basis. Here, focusing on establishing healthy lifestyle habits that sustain your energy is key. Getting enough sleep, being sufficiently physically active, eating healthily and taking time out from work all help.
Watch out for maladaptive behaviours.
Comfort eating, consuming more alcohol than usual and smoking more are all signs your system is under too much stress. These crutches, while possibly helpful in the short term, can be massively detrimental if allowed to become your ‘usual’ way of coping.
Give yourself permission to ask for help.
No one will necessarily notice if you’re drowning. Everyone else is too wrapped up in their own thoughts and stress to see. Putting your hand up to ask for help when you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted is a sign of courage and a recognition that you’ve reached your limit.
Far better to ask and consider how your workload can be lessened, where you can take more time out regularly to defrag and spend quality time with family and friends to be social, to share a laugh and pursue activities that are fun and give you joy.
Choose to focus on the good things about your work, what meaning it provides, what got you excited about it in the first place and seek ways to rediscover the good.
Clinical intervention in the form of counselling or psychological intervention can be hugely beneficial when burnout is severe to help you recover more quickly and install those habits and behaviours that will support you in the future to minimise the risk of recurrence.
We are often our own worst self-critic, chastising ourselves for perceived weaknesses or follies. Showing ourselves kindness and self-compassion might feel odd at first especially if you are out of practice. This can include giving yourself permission for self-care, taking time out just for you, scheduling in time for breaks during the workday as well as mini-breaks such as long weekends and taking your holidays when due.
Be curious to learn something new that you’ve always wanted to try out. It could be something creative like painting or pottery, active like dancing or joining a cycle or golf group or take up a regular relaxation activity such as Yoga, Pilates or swimming.
Burnout. It’s a common reason we lose our mojo, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Tuning into what your body and mind is telling you and having fun as a thriving human will help keep you safe, feeling inspired and happy.
Have you been affected by burnout?
What have you found helpful to alleviate the symptoms?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.