If you are a passionate high-achiever, used to handling a lot of stress, completing more work than others typically in your position and working for hours on end, there might come a time when you have to manage Burnout.
How will you know that Burnout has crept up on you?
Often you will have suspected its presence for a while already before calling it by name. You will have noticed and mostly ignored little signs from your body, mind and emotions, like constantly waking up tired, experiencing regular ineffectiveness (by your own standards) and feeling hopelessness and or overly emotional.
As you will deduce, Burnout doesn’t overpower you like perhaps the flu, where you’re just fine the one day and annihilated the next. Burnout is a state of chronic acute stress. The symptoms are caused by both the intensity and duration of exposure to the cause(s). Yes, we all feel exhausted at times and this is often caused by stress. If the exhaustion continues over weeks on end, however, and even after attempts to recover (like taking a break, treating bad sleeping habits or getting help at work) it might have developed to an extreme degree, where it can now form part of the symptoms of Burnout.
This is in a way a bit of good news because it means that the sooner you pay attention to the symptoms and do something to address them, the easier you will recover from burnout or avoid it altogether.
What are the signs of Burnout?
According to Psychology Today, the symptoms of Burnout fall into three areas, with some overlap possible:
- Signs of physical and emotional exhaustion
- Chronic fatigue. In the early stages, you may feel a lack of energy and feel tired most days. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.
- Insomnia. In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.
- Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.
- Physical symptoms. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed).
- Increased illness. Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
- Loss of appetite. In the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight.
- Anxiety. Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes in your ability to work productively and may cause problems in your personal life.
- Depression. In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped, severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you. (If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.)
- Anger. At first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. (If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or co-workers, seek immediate professional assistance.)
- Signs of Cynicism and Detachment
- Loss of enjoyment. At first, loss of enjoyment may seem very mild, such as not wanting to go to work or being eager to leave. Without intervention, loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of your life, including the time you spend with family and friends. At work, you may try to avoid projects and figure out ways to escape work altogether.
- Pessimism. At first, this may present itself as negative self-talk and/or moving from a glass-half-full to a glass-half-empty attitude. At its worst, this may move beyond how you feel about yourself and extend to trust issues with co-workers and family members and a feeling that you can’t count on anyone.
- Isolation. In the early stages, this may seem like mild resistance to socializing (i.e., not wanting to go out to lunch; closing your door occasionally to keep others out). In the latter stages, you may become angry when someone speaks to you, or you may come in early or leave late to avoid interactions.
- Detachment. Detachment is a general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. It can take the form of the isolative behaviours described above, and result in removing yourself emotionally and physically from your job and other responsibilities. You may call in sick often, stop returning calls and emails, or regularly come in late.
- Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment
- Feelings of apathy and hopelessness. This is similar to what is described in the depression and pessimism sections of this article. It presents as a general sense that nothing is going right or nothing matters. As the symptoms worsen, these feelings may become immobilizing, making it seem like “what’s the point?”
- Increased irritability. Irritability often stems from feeling ineffective, unimportant, useless, and an increasing sense that you’re not able to do things as efficiently or effectively as you once did. In the early stages, this can interfere in personal and professional relationships. At its worst, it can destroy relationships and careers.
- Lack of productivity and poor performance. Despite long hours, chronic stress prevents you from being as productive as you once were, which often results in incomplete projects and an ever-growing to-do list. At times, it seems that as hard as you try, you can’t climb out from under the pile.”
There is no use downplaying the intensity of the combination of some or all of these symptoms, especially if they are severe. As mentioned before, Burnout is common amongst over-achievers and you should feel no shame if you suspect you suffer from it. Even if it is difficult to do, you are now at a point where some changes in your life are necessary. You need to make arrangements for amongst other things better time-management and/or more realistic deadlines; get more and/or better team members to help carry the workload; make room for exercise, vacation and relaxation. If you want to stay in the race, the time to act is now!
As you’re living your busy life it is easy for stress to creep up on you, but if you keep your eyes open for these warning signs, you can act fast.