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Do you remember starting your job and just loving it?  Springing out of bed in the morning, not being able to wait to get to work as you were so excited about what the day would bring. Maybe, you felt fulfilled as you truly believed you could really make a difference, or you simply enjoyed what you did.

But now, a few years down the track, it’s a completely different story.   You feel absolutely drained all the time and the mere thought of work puts you on edge. You dream of being anywhere but work and getting through the day is a challenge.  You feel defeated most of the time and it’s hard to find anything positive about what you do or your work place more generally.  Basically, you are turning up, but just going through the motions.

I can certainly remember those times when a job had lost its sheen.  If this sounds like you, you may be experiencing burnout.

It’s fairly common in some occupations, especially, the helping professions, but it’s not limited to this field.  It can occur in any workplace and although it’s often seen as a work stress condition it can also affect people outside of workplaces such as carers, students, and stay at home parents.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.  It was first recognised in the 1970s when researchers studying human services workers identified they were not coping with their jobs and felt “burnt out”. These early studies found that workers reported being emotionally drained and fatigued; losing empathy towards clients; and feeling incompetent. Later studies found that other groups of workers also felt cynical and negative towards their work.

There are three key aspects of 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 accomplishment

Although not regarded as a  medical or mental health condition,  the World Health Organisation recognises burnout as a syndrome that influences a person’s health status or contact with health services.

Recognising the signs

Burnout can be a slow creep, people often don’t recognise it is happening until it is too late. People often attribute how they feel to other factors in their life or to temporary issues in the workplace.

Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • feeling exhausted all the time, both physically and mentally
  • difficulty performing basic tasks work tasks
  • feeling unable to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • procrastinating or avoiding tasks that overwhelm you
  • feeling empty or numb
  • having an indifferent or don’t care attitude
  • irritability or anger
  • losing your passion and drive
  • feeling helpless and trapped, unable to effect change
  • feeling negative, resentful or disillusioned
  • increased conflict in your relationships with co-workers, friends and family
  • lack of motivation not just at work, but in many aspects of your life such as home, family, friends, leisure
  • withdrawing and isolating yourself emotionally from friends and family
  • changes to sleep routines
  • increased self-doubt and a lack of confidence
  • a feeling that you have failed
  • mood changes
  • body aches and pains, headaches, digestive upset

When you’ve reached the point of burnout, it can feel like you are totally depleted, you have no more to give, and you just don’t care anymore.

Causes of burnout

Burnout occurs when we feel overwhelmed by the constant demands placed on us and we feel unable to cope. It is  caused by a combination of work, lifestyle and personal factors.

These can include:

  • high or excessive workloads
  • unclear or overly demanding expectations
  • lack of recognition or reward
  • chaotic, high-pressure work environments
  • unrealistic deadlines or time pressures
  • lack of communication and managerial support
  • overly challenging duties or activities
  • overly boring or monotonous duties
  • always being contactable
  • injustice or unfair treatment
  • dysfunctional workplace culture or team dynamics
  • over-identifying with your work role
  • being everything to everyone
  • perfectionistic or high achieving tendencies
  • inability to delegate or share responsibilities
  • lack of balance between your work life and your personal life
  • a pessimistic outlook
  • a lack of social support

How to recover from burnout (or prevent it from happening in the first place)

There is no quick fix recovery from burnout, it can take some time to get back to feeling your usual self. One of the challenges is that a number of the contributing factors may reside in the work environment, however despite this, you can take control of a number of things in your life to make a difference to how you feel. By doing many of these things you can also build your resilience to cope with future challenges. Listed below are some changes you can make in the workplace and in your personal life.  Give them a try, see what works for you.  There is no one strategy that works, overcoming burnout involves a combination of things, with small changes leading to further changes.

Workplace behaviours

  • Speak up and let someone know if you need help with certain tasks
  • Set boundaries about what you can and can’t do to avoid overextending yourself
  • Be realistic about what is achievable if you have a habit of setting high standards for yourself
  • Focus on your accomplishments at the end of each day, instead of what you didn’t do
  • Find ways to solve issues that overwhelm you or create stress instead of ignoring them
  • Focus on one task at a time instead of multi-tasking
  • Break down overwhelming tasks and projects into smaller parts
  • Find something that is meaningful and of value in your work
  • Take a lunch break, and make sure it’s away from your desk or your car, even if it’s just for 20 mins
  • Build a network of support in your workplace with co-workers, supervisors and have a friendly non-work related conversation at least once per day
  • Avoid toxic people and don’t get involved in the constant complainers club
  • Go home when it’s time to go home, re-evaluate your need to work longer
  • Stop checking emails or reading files once you have left the office – learn to switch off

Self-care strategies

  • Take time away from work if you need to recover
  • Schedule regular holidays and mini-breaks
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol
  • Eat healthy meals low in sugar and refined carbs and include lots of fresh foods, especially fruit and vegetables
  • Create a daily switch off routine where you leave work at a reasonable time and you do something to make yourself feel good
  • Exercise regularly – maybe make it part of your daily switch off routine
  • Get outside into green spaces regularly
  • Find some activities  and hobbies that you can enjoy when not at work
  • Write a daily gratitude journal by identifying something you are thankful for each day
  • Reconnect with family and friends – share with them your struggles and challenges
  • Find things in your personal life that give you a sense of pleasure, meaning, purpose and accomplishment
  • Re-evaluate what’s important to you in order to re-balance your life

These are just some of the strategies that people often find helpful to reduce their experience of burnout.

If you would like to develop a personalized plan to improve how you are feeling, get in contact with me to discuss how I can help hello@thewellbeingpsychologist.com.au  I’ve had extensive experience helping people overcome burnout, having worked with emergency service workers for many years.

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