Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as we all experience some form of it during the natural process of life. But while it can provide drive, motivate us to make positive changes, and alert us to dangers or discomforts we may need to address; dealing with modern life – jobs, finances, relationships, politics, gun violence – in addition to any added adversity, marginalization, loss or trauma is a recipe for becoming overstressed.
In recent years, equating stress with self-worth has become a pervasive narrative within our culture. Society has formed an obsession with overworking or “hustle porn” – the idea that putting in excessively long hours and working harder than everyone else is the only way to get ahead. However, pushing yourself to operate at 110%, 24/7 puts you on the fast track to burnout and can have a serious toll on your mental and physical health.
What exactly is burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first but become worse as time goes on.
I had an experience with burnout early on in my career. Like many millennials, I had a hard time finding and securing employment after graduating from college. Six months of living at home with no interviews really impacted my psychological wellbeing – to the point, where I as soon as I got a job, I immediately threw myself into work.
My first job was at an agency that taught their employees how to work with children on the autism spectrum to improve their learning and motor skills through play-based therapy. Working hard to secure independence, I began using the skills I learned there to obtain secondary employment (as I was only making $10 an hour).
Working two jobs is never ideal but I had done it in college to stay in off-campus housing for three years — how bad could the experience be…
After working at both jobs for about 8 months, I was offered an opportunity as an independent contractor for a home-based therapy program. Originally there were two of us supporting a young girl with non-verbal autism, but because of her behaviors (which included hitting, hair pulling, spitting, and scratching), I quickly became her only therapist. And I loved it. I loved being able to improve the quality of life for children on the spectrum, and I decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life.
As her only support (and with the knowledge of knowing that ABA has the greatest potential for helping individuals when it is consistent), I happily took on enough hours for the workload of two therapists. Yet I was still unable to fully support myself, financially, so I took another job at a pre-school as an assistant teacher. I started working at the pre-school from 9-5, then with my client for a few hours afterward and on the weekends. On weekdays, I would make it back to my apartment in time to have dinner and fall asleep on the couch with Hulu still on. On weekends, I’d work with my client from early morning until the afternoon, run any errands I had to complete, then lock myself in the apartment for the rest of the day.
Soon, I was constantly sick with a cold (which I thought I just kept catching from the children) and my eczema was back (which I hadn’t had since I was a child). I didn’t go out with friends anymore, I stopped maintaining the cleanliness of my apartment, I was always tired, and I started smoking a lot more weed than I used to. It became a chore to teach children and I no longer wanted to put in the work that went into maintaining a stable therapy program, yet my financial troubles and feelings of obligation kept me from leaving.
Soon, I was taking out my frustrations on the children at the pre-school. I began skipping certain teachings with my client on the spectrum as a way to not deal with her inappropriate behaviors. I started questioning if this was what I really wanted to do with my life.
Then, one day while going through some maintenance tasks with my client, I realized how my behavior was affecting her learning. Maintenance tasks, within the applied behavior analysis module, are supposed to be done during each session to ensure that children ‘maintain’ the skills they’ve already acquired through the program. For my client, some of these tasks included waving when someone says hi, standing up when asked to, and mimicking certain gross motor skills like ‘touching head’ or ‘rubbing belly’. Most of these skills she learned and acquired early on in the program and was able to do without hesitation. But while experiencing my burnout, I wasn’t going over them as often as I should’ve. I didn’t think of it as a problem until she stopped being able to do them – I’d mimic touching my head and she would touch her arm. I’d say ‘stand up’ and she’d just look at me. I’d say ‘hi’, and she wouldn’t wave.
It took her losing skills for me to finally realize that I had to take a step back, even if it meant not being able to afford my apartment anymore.
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical and resentful; and can lead you to eventually feeling like you have nothing more to give. The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life, including your home, work, and social life. It can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and the flu.
Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much – too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally – but still allow you to imagine that once everything is under control, you’re feel better. Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. It involves feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation and beyond caring; causing those experiencing it to not see any hope of positive change in their situations.
If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities,
burnout is a sense of being all dried up.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially included burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an “occupational phenomenon.” The WHO defines burnout as a syndrome characterized by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” with the following three components: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
|Physical signs and symptoms of burnout|
|Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout|
|Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout|
* What causes workplace burnout? Increased demands and workloads from a manager is one good reason. In fact, 95% of human resource leaders say burnout is sabotaging retention because of heavy workloads and unsupportive managers, according to The Washington Post.
However, workplace burnout is not the only type of burnout. There’s also social media burnout and parental burnout.
Regardless of what type of burnout you are suffering from, the following recommendations can be helpful across the board.
- Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the commitments you want to make.
- Practice self-care. Like any mental health disorder, burnout is exacerbated by a lack of sleep, physical activity, and unhealthy food. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating healthy foods.
- Nurture your hobbies. Keep up with those hobbies that you’re passionate about. Nourish your creative side, as creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout.
- Enjoy a change of scenery. Most workers today feel the need to go, go, go. While there’s nothing wrong with being productive, if you don’t take a break at some point, all of that overworking will catch up to you. Take a mental health day and allow yourself time to recharge.
- Disconnect. In today’s highly connected world, it’s wonderfully convenient to be able to log in at any time anywhere. But it can also be detrimental to your mental well-being. It’s hard to escape work stress if you’re constantly connected to your job. Designate certain times to be “technology-free”– put away your laptop, turn off your phone and stop checking email.
- Set aside relaxation time. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is opposite of the stress response.
- Consider a change. Always remember that you have more power over your situation than you may think. Sometimes making positive life changes, like leaving a job, can dramatically decrease your stress levels.
Another way to overcome burnout is by rediscovering your passion. If you’re like me and other victims of burnout, the passion that made you work so hard to begin with had probably lost its meaning – leaving you feeling physically exhausted and emotionally depleted. But rediscovering it (or finding a new one) with a new self-awareness that it doesn’t have to be all-consuming can be the spark you need to reignite your flame.
This may mean you have to redefine your roles at work, home, or both. It may mean that you have to find a way to redistribute the load you’re carrying. Or it may mean that you have to find a new passion, one that will offer more balance so you can enjoy life the way you once did.
Leaving my job and rediscovering my passion worked for me. Learning that I do not have to deplete my cup in order to fill someone else’s, helped me rediscover myself and has fueled my original passion for improving quality of life – but this time for all.
Thankfully, burnout is not a terminal condition. Although it certainly requires a change in lifestyle, once burnout is recognized and attended to, it can become a positive force in your life. Tackle burnout as you’ve tackled all the other challenges in your life and you’ll succeed.
- Bishop, Sarah. Feeling Burnt Out? 5 Simple Ways to Beat Burnout Syndrome. Independence Insights. 2019
- Carter Psy.D, Sherrie Bourg. Overcoming Burnout. Psychology Today. 2011.
- Dyba, Tiffany. 5 Ways to Combat Burnout. Talkspace. 2019.
- Smith M.A., Melinda, Segal Ph.D., Jeanne, and Robinson, Lawrence. Burnout Prevention and Treatment. Help Guide 2019.
- Su, Elizabeth. Your Stress is Not a Trophy. Talkspace. 2019.