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How can we avoid burnout through this strange winter?

Tracy Ward explains how burnout affects us – and what to do if we’re feeling it.

COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS that have rolled on and off for months, coupled with the need to work from home, and the darker evenings and mornings, have increased feelings of exhaustion for many.

Employees especially have reported working longer hours and have cited the pandemic as a contributing cause of burnout. But what exactly is burnout and how can you avoid it?

Whilst the term burnout has been around since the 1970s, it took until last year for the World Health Organization to formally recognise it as a legitimate medical diagnosis, defining it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused not by a single one-off event but by excessive and prolonged workplace stress. It is worth noting that you cannot be diagnosed with ‘burnout’ as such, but it can be listed as a factor contributing to a health problem and a reason to seek help.

What causes burnout?

The exact cause of burnout will be unique to you but it generally occurs when you feel constantly overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet excessive work demands.

It can result from one or a number of different factors, which can include: lack of control, an inability to influence decisions that affect your job, a toxic workplace, manager and or an unrealistic workload.

Feelings of disillusionment and procrastination can be early indicators of what’s to come. The International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD 11) identifying three specific signs of workplace burnout:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Physical symptoms can also include anxiety, brain fog and dizziness. It can look a bit like depression but it is entirely work related and unlike depression, can be overcome.

It manifests as digestive issues, problems sleeping and or a compromised immune system.

What the science says

Your body responds to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol as part of the fight or flight response as well as glucose into your bloodstream in order to provide the additional energy required to respond to the perceived stressor. Once the perceived stressful event is over, your cortisol and glucose levels should return to normal. Which is beneficial, for a one off stressful event.

However, during a prolonged and constant period of stress, your body struggles to generate enough cortisol, resulting in what is known as adrenal fatigue and not enough glucose to match it, which explains the feeling of being faint or dizzy as your blood sugar is low.

Difficulties solving problems and decision making can occur as burnout causes your prefrontal cortex to grow thinner. This is a part of your brain known as the executive function, with responsibility for your memory and attention span.

That overwhelming feeling of unease, and your desire to email your manager and resign from your job with immediate effect, is caused by the enlargement of your amygdala. This is the part of your brain responsible for emotions and behaviour.

How to avoid burnout

Early intervention and being able to recognise the signs and symptoms is a good starting point. Having a strong self-care routine is vital. Focus on getting the basics right; sleep, nutrition, exercise, and create a clutter-free home and workspace.

Differentiate what you have control over and leave behind the things you don’t. Refer to Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and his Circle of Influence and Control exercise to help you with this.

Set healthy boundaries and clarify or seek clarity on expectations and responsibilities. It can sometimes be hard to say ‘No’. So instead explain that if you say yes to X, Y needs to fall off the to do list, have its deadline extended or additional support is needed.

Lean on your support network. At a time when connection is needed most, burnout can cause you to want to disconnect from others. So find the time to be with friends and family.

Flag the issue with your superior or trusted confidant; identify what support you need, and don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Burnout affects you on a physical, emotional and cognitive level, and won’t go away on its own. If it’s too late for preventive measures: rest and time away from work is the only cure. So best to book a week off work now and seek the help you need.

Tracy is a career and life rejuvenation coach helping mid-career professionals and creatives to navigate their career in a direction that leads them to personal success.

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