Whilst the demands and strains of our every day work can feel relentless, it is often acknowledged that a little bit of stress can actually be a good thing, making us more alert, quick to respond and better at making some decisions. In contrast, however, true burnout is a dangerous and damaging thing.
The dangers of burnout are acknowledged in many professions, from high flying city positions, to medical roles in which life and death hangs in the balance daily, to the issues experienced by serving military personnel and veterans.
In all sectors, psychological advice includes the need to recognise the symptoms of burnout, reverse their effects as quickly as possible, and build resilience to diminish the ongoing impact of stressful situations. Here, we explore these three stages, with thoughts and links for anyone - military or otherwise - who recognises the symptoms of burnout described, either in themselves or others.
It is important to identify the difference between experiencing some stress and burnout. In general a degree of stress can be useful, although different individuals will have significantly different reactions to and tolerance levels of stress in the workplace and in daily life. Burnout tends to be a more full-blown reaction, often to ongoing stress, can be triggered by issues in work, or in someones lifestyle, and can be exacerbated by certain character traits - such as a high degree of perfectionism.
That said, the symptoms of burnout still fall on a spectrum, and some of these might be identified before an individual experiences a serious issue with their work or home life. Symptoms of burnout are often described in terms of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and unable to really care about things at work or home, with specific symptoms listed such as:
- Lowered immunity causing sickness and a feeling of being drained
- Headaches, muscular pains and problems in sleeping
- Feeling a failure, feeling helpless and losing confidence
- Feeling negative and cynical, and lacking motivation
- Isolating oneself deliberately, or becoming irritable and withdrawn
- Substance abuse, or addiction to escape the emotional impacts of burnout
If you recognise any of the above symptoms in yourself or another, it is important to get support. Within the military, field doctors and other medics are trained to look for symptoms such as these and offer support, but in other professions, the awareness of such issues might be more limited.
For some people, self help or talking therapies can help to reevaluate goals and work through issues, alleviating some of the pressures contributing to burnout; although you may wish to take time off work if this is needed to make space for your recovery. Professional help will allow you to evaluate your own situation, and access the medical and psychological help that is needed to speed your recovery.
If you are struggling with burnout, then it is essential to make time for yourself daily, and be receptive to your own feelings - don’t hide or ignore them. This can be especially difficult for those who are unused to talking about their own emotions, and those who have been in especially traumatic situations such as military personnel. Returning personnel in the UK army have decompression periods to help readjust, and their families can get information on recognising issues such as burnout or post traumatic stress disorder, and how to respond or react if they spot these symptoms in a loved one.
Building resilience is the last step in managing burnout in any sector, and the need for this is especially recognised in the military, due to the extreme strains of operations. Ongoing research in the US Army is underway to understand and improve resilience training for soldiers, whilst organisations such as ’real warriors’ provide resources for veterans, serving personnel, families and others connected to the military to support building resilience and help those connected to the military. With these organisations, military personnel and their families can take online assessments to understand their own resilience levels and needs, and access the support and resources to help build this.
Resilience is a vital part of succeeding in any sector, and is valued as a leadership skill in many organisations. In the broader business world, resilience can be increased by improving work life balance, and viewing the ability to perform in work as something which relies on feeling balanced across all aspects of life - including seeking physical, spiritual and mental fulfillment outside of the working day. Larger organisations especially are getting better at supporting employees to seek balance and look after their emotional well being as well as their physical health - but there is still a road to travel, and the onus remains on employees to seek help should they feel they need it.
Burnout is a serious issue in the military and beyond, with tragic consequences if not recognised and addressed. If any of the symptoms feel familiar or cause concern, professional help should be sought out to support you to reverse any damaging impacts and set you back on the road to success.