Back in March of 2020, we started hearing about the Corona Virus as an epidemic that would go on to infect a large percentage of the world population. It just kept spreading and through its variants, it doesn’t seem to die down. In fact, it’s a bit like burnout – a syndrome experienced by nearly half of the working population which has been incrementally increasing since the start of the pandemic for a variety of reasons.
Burnout is nothing new. In fact, the term has been used since the early 1970 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. And it makes sense that workers are burning out in droves because today more than ever, we are working longer hours.
The bigger question is why we work as much as we do?
You Are Burning Out Because You Are Overworking
Since the start of the pandemic, many people have been rethinking their lives. Some have relocated as a result of being allowed to work remotely. Others have shifted their careers entirely, leading to the Great Reshuffle in which they are looking to find more fulfillment from their work. Finally, there are those who quit working altogether in a phenomenon now known as the Great Resignation.
You can say this has been a major wake up call for workers. They are finally considering the bigger picture of their lives and looking for ways to increase their happiness.
For those staying in their jobs, this often amounts to staff shortages, requiring them to do the work of more than one person. Considering that some of their coworkers have left due to chronic stress and dissatisfaction, these added demands are clearly a recipe for more burnout.
But there are other reasons why you might be finding yourself working overtime and this has nothing to do with the times.
The main driver for high achievers is their feeling of inadequacy. When you believe that you are not enough, you are more likely to pursue external markers to fill the void and prove your worth. This equates to seeing productivity or salary as a representation of your value which acts like the carrot that keeps the horse running ahead.
If our core beliefs weren’t enough to jumpstart this tendency to work too much, having performance incentives built into your job doesn’t help. In fact, according to research conducted by Ashley Whillans of the Harvard Business School, workers are 23 percent more likely to work more when their pay structure includes bonuses.
Certainly, there are other factors that contribute to burnout. They include a lack of support, loss of meaning, and bias, abuse, or mistreatment in the workplace. And while you may not have control over many of these, there are things you can do to minimize your stress.
Overworking is cultural. We see it across the board, but in some industries it is even more pronounced. That said, many workers don’t take enough time off from work to recover. An estimated 768 million vacation days were not used in 2018 and the trend is the same from year to year.
Regardless of why you’re working as much as you do, the consequences are the same. Top of the heap when it comes to burnout are:
We typically spend more time working each day than doing anything else. That’s just the norm. That said, It’s easy to know if you are working too much. In the words of one of my clients, it’s when “work has taken over” and “relationships and family have fallen by the wayside” because you are working from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep.
Sometimes we burn out because we feel burdened by our work and all of the demands that come along with it. But some people, especially those self-proclaimed workaholics, just love work so much that they are choosing to work. A lot. In other words, you don’t have to be miserable to burn out.
How To Know If You Are Burning Out
Burnout is simply chronic stress. While we can all bounce back quickly from acute stressors, it’s when those stressors are unrelenting that they start to negatively impact us. For that reason, it’s important to know what to look for when it comes to burnout. When you catch it early, you can start taking steps in the right direction.
The first thing people typically notice is low energy. Perhaps that’s putting it mildly. It’s more like utter mental exhaustion. This can be challenging to spot because it affects your mind, not your body. It’s when you have brain fog and find it hard to focus. You lose motivation, you’re in fight-or-flight mode and find it difficult to relax. That’s coupled with some mental health markers like anxiety and depression.
You might also experience physical exhaustion which can manifest in insomnia, digestive problems, weight loss or gain, and bodily pains such as headaches or stomach aches.
And because you become highly stressed out, you might find that you don’t recognize your reactions to situations. This is what is known as depersonalization and is very normal. In fact, founder and CEO of the BANK personality test, Cheri Tree, says that while we each have our set preferences that makes us who we are, under stress, our behaviors tend to shift. We act out of character.
All these symptoms amount to lowered engagement at work which translates into reduced productivity. If you are someone who equates your worth with productivity, this might have even more dire consequences as it now shakes your foundation as a person.
You may start to make negative associations between you and work and this can lead to increased absenteeism and, of course, resignations.
I’m Burned Out. Now What?
If roughly half the working population is reporting burnout, chances are high that you’re either a statistic or are on your way. So before we dive any further, let’s just remove any remnants of shame you might be feeling. There is a greater chance of getting burned out currently than there is of catching COVID. It’s just a fact. Rather than focus on the problem, let’s hone in on solutions and ones that you have control over.
When it comes to burnout recovery, there is something to be said for creating more balance in your life. If you’re working so much that you don’t have time for yourself, that’s a recipe for burnout and you need to reprioritize. For each person this will look different. It can include setting boundaries if the reason why you’ve got no time for you is because you’re in the habit of saying “yes” to other people’s requests in an attempt to please them.
Too often we know what to do, but we still don’t do it. In fact, many burned out professionals who come to me share that they know they should engage in more self-care, for example, but they run out of time. As the saying goes, “To know and not to do is to not know.”
Consider how to remove as much friction from positive behaviors that you’d like to create. Perhaps rather than waiting until the end of the day to exercise, you do it first thing in the morning to make sure it gets done. It might mean that you have your gym bag packed and ready the night before so when you wake up, you can grab it and go. Some people have even resorted to sleeping in their workout clothes so they can jump out of bed with as little resistance as possible to working out.
One of the things that happens when we’re overloaded with work and life is we either multitask to get everything done or we can’t turn work off even after the workday has ended. This is where focusing your mind comes in handy and a great exercise for this is reading. When you read a book, you have to focus on the words. Reading forces you to slow down and has several positive upsides like increased focus, decreased stress, and improved sleep.
Music has also been shown to help with relaxation, which is exactly what you need most when you’re burned out. Research shows that music can “calm neural activity in the brain, which may lead to reductions in anxiety, and it may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus.”
When you can find ways to destress, reboot, and participate in enjoyable activities after work, you have a chance of thriving. This requires being intentional with your time and your mind. It’s important to stay optimistic and know how to accept things and let them go.
Whether you love your job too much or not enough, if you’re burning out, you need to take a step back to evaluate what’s happening.
Curious about how you’re doing? Download the Burnout Checklist to find out.
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