Burned out? Thing is, burnout doesn’t just appear overnight. It builds up and before you know it boom, you are completely burned out and unable to function properly. There will have been warning signs that those close to you would have noticed, they problem here though is that you may have driven everyone close to you away. Your frequent displays of petulance, childishness, cynicism, extreme sensitivity, and your inability to switch off are all signs that you are close to a burn out. Problem is, the majority of us don’t notice we’re suffering from this malaise until it’s too late. My mission today is to help you see the symptoms so you can deal with your issue head on. Stop being a crazy workaholic. Deal with your burnout… before it deals with you.
According to behavioural scientists there are a number of factors which contribute to the sensation of burnout. As you would have guessed, an unhealthy work/life balance, lack of support in the workplace, stressful relationships at work or even outside of work, failure to attend to self (healthy eating exercise etc) and having a super-driven, ‘type A’ personality all contribute to a burn out. This suggests that a burnout isn’t limited to those who are working all the hours, explaining why there are scores of people who work extremely hard and still manage to function and even excel in their work.
Whatever the source of burnout, below are the warning signs, the red flags that a long holiday needs to be booked asap before your burnout wreaks havoc on everything you care about. The problem with burnout is that it happens so subtly, is so insidious that symptoms are usually disregarded or dismissed: you’re just having a bad day; you’re just under the weather; you’re just working ‘in the zone’.
1. At Work
- You’re still up to your neck in the last project, even though you’ve managed to negotiate two further extensions. No-one else could possibly do your job as well as you could, so you don’t dare delegate any part of your work. Any of it. You’re afraid that they’ll mess up. Which of course means that you need to work longer hours than anybody else. Willingly, of course, though you resent anyone who goes home earlier than you.
- You have an obsessive compulsion to prove yourself and accept responsibility readily, regardless of your schedule.
- Your work has no time for strategic or creative thinking. Your mentality has become ‘tick box’: there’s no other way. You have become a walking-talking to-do list.
- You’re making everything a big deal, even with tasks that should be easy. Even writing a thank you email to a client takes a number of attempts. You lack the attention to detail you used to have and your memory isn’t quite what it used to be, either. (No these are not signs of early Alzheimer’s, they are just signs of progressed burn out.)
- You get annoyed at the smallest thing: the coffee machine doesn’t dispense coffee quickly enough; the photocopy machine is stuck for the second time this year! What is that? You also lash out at your coworkers when they give you even the most gentle and constructive of criticisms. You’ve gone well past your usual passive-aggression to aggression-aggression and lash out at anyone who gets in your way. Disproportionate and emotional don’t come close enough to describe your responses…
- You blame others or your company for your situation. According to the Association for Psychological Science (APS}, if you’re someone who works towards success until you’re totally depleted, you are likely to cope with your stress by complaining about the limits your company places on your goals and ambition (i.e. you have no choice but to push yourself to the limit). Employees who interpret their burnout in this way are more likely than others to experience stress overload and “throw in the towel”.
- You’re questioning your ability. You feel insecure about your work and you’re unsure of your capabilities. This feeling of diminished accomplishment is a symptom of being burned out and a common one too, particularly among workaholics.
2. With Friends
- You can’t recall the last time you met with friends for dinner wearing non-work attire. Hopefully though you aren’t having too much trouble remembering the last time you had a proper meal.
- You’re becoming more cynical than usual. More uncharitable about others - laughing at a friend’s choice of outfit is an example of the extremes you’ve come to.
- You’ve lost touch with the world around you. Perhaps you used to be a cinema lover, but you wouldn’t know which films were playing at your local cinema if your life depended on it. Current affairs, sports, the arts have simply no space in your ridiculously busy, burned-out life.
- The world seems bleak. You’re feeling lost and unsure of your future. You may even have sought comfort in unhealthy activities such as overeating and overindulging in alcohol.
- Your social life is close to non-existent. Your friends suddenly stopped calling; you’re now officially Minnie-no-mates. You’ve become…a bore?
3. At Home
Your loved ones complain about feeling excluded. When you say, “We’ll go out to dinner next time”, even you don’t believe yourself. Your kids have stopped talking to you about their problems at school and about their friends.
Things have become so bad you want to throw it all away and book yourself a one-way ticket to Bora Bora – or anywhere that will have you. According to scientists, this kind of fantasising is a symptom of burnout. Seeking an escape route is simply an inbuilt, evolutionary coping mechanism (flight versus fight) that comes into play when our survival is threatened. However, as experts point out, avoidance as a means of coping with work-related stress is an ineffective mechanism; one that is “related to the absence of acceptance […], reinforcing a dysfunctional coping profile.”
4. In Your Body
If you’re suffering from burnout, you’re probably not sleeping enough and eating erratically. And if you experience any of the following symptoms, you really don’t need any more confirmation that you’re physically and emotionally spent:
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Constant headaches
- Gurgling stomach
- Flu-like symptoms
- Persistent sluggishness/tiredness that isn’t eliminated by sleeping
Studies have shown that workers who are “chronically” exhausted, i.e. burned out, risk “serious health problems” in their future. You have been warned.
If any of the above danger signs resonate with you, consider whether your quality of life has deteriorated in direct correlation to your standard of living: many people who become burned out trade in their time for money, going so far in that direction that they experience all the above symptoms. If this is true for you, you may need to ‘buy back’ some time. This may require making some major decisions: a smaller apartment or a less expensive car would take away some of the financial pressure, for example, thereby allowing you to work less and enjoy more free time.
It’s possible that your long hours at work may have more to do with your desire to be seen as a hard working employee than your interest in the job itself. If so, try to resist the temptation to stay on at work just to prove such points. Those who are the most free amongst us are the people who feel they have nothing whatsoever to prove. Adopt the mantra of working SMART (in which you set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely goals) and not hard or, as someone once told me, tell yourself (repeatedly) that it’s not the hours you put into your work that’s important, it’s what you put into the hours.
Do you recognise any of these tell-tale signs in yourself? What steps have you taken to recover from your burnout? Please share any comments in the comments box below.