Let’s start with a few questions.
Do you believe that nothing you do will make things better? Do you feel exhausted no matter how little sleep you get?
If you answer yes to at least one or more of the questions, then you might be suffering from burnout. Do you find that you don’t care about things that are important to you?
It is a horrible and diminishing phenomenon from my experience with it. It likes to invite its cruel friends along with it to join it. Even when we are close to breaking point, many of us don’t know that we’re suffering from it. In the UK, we have developed a toxic workplace culture where busyness is a status symbol and our self-worth is based on our productivity. According to one study, over 80% of young people don’t take time off when ill, and this leads us to the reality that we live in. The recent shift to full-time working from home is likely to make this worse.
It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. A study published last year found that 90 percent of participants felt stressed most of the time. This was the case before the Pandemic which we know is having a significant impact on us, and only adding to an already stressed and tired population. The word “burnout” is definitely in the top 10 if “unprecedented” is the top word. The World Health Organisation classified it as an “occupational phenomenon”, describing it as “work-stress-induced emotional and physical exhaustion”.
There are three signs of burnout. It doesn’t have to be this way. I was signed off work for a few weeks after a panic attack due to my most recent experience with burnout, so I have been on a mission to learn more about it, how to identify it and how to recover from it. The first step to protecting ourselves or recovering from burnout is to shine a light on the key symptoms, so let’s start there.
Emotional exhaustion can affect a person’s sense of achievement. Throughout my research, there have been three symptoms linked to burnout that have come up time and time again.
emotional exhaustion I will go through each one-by-one to show you what they are and how they show up from my research and personal experience.
It is clear to me that I did not understand the concept of emotional exhaustion. I think exhaustion is a physical thing, something you get from working out too much or burning the candle at both ends. This idea of caring fatigue is very close to my heart. The moment I met my breaking point, I described it as like my mind was split into many small pieces. I meant that I was juggling so many things that I cared about, from client work, internal projects and leadership responsibilities, through to exercising, socialising and being a good friend/partner/daughter. I had nothing left to give to any of them.
It’s called the “fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long”. It can feel like we are always exhausted, no matter how much we rest. This was a huge one for me, and also the one that took the longest to recover from. I felt like I had been working hard for years. It was surprising to me as I am a pretty good sleeper and I can get to sleep easily, but nothing seemed to shift my lack of energy.
The sense of accomplishment has been reduced. The scariest thing about this particular symptom is that our emotions affect every system in our body. Emotions are neurological events which means that they are also playing a role in your nervous system, which means that they aren’t just fluffy, innocuous feelings trapped in our mind. When we get stuck in a negative cycle of emotions, like returning to a job that is not enjoyable, it can lead to a host of health problems, such as weakened blood vessels, and even heart disease. I felt like I had sore muscles when I was exhausted, even though I hadn’t worked out in weeks.
It can play out as a constant level of self-doubt. Even though you know what you are doing and have been doing it for a long time, you might feel like you are losing confidence in your ability to do the job. You might feel like you are working harder and harder, but you still don’t accomplish as much as you would. If we feel that we are becoming less productive, this can leave us in a pretty dark place in a culture that values productivity so highly. Our self-belief plummets as a result. This is the feeling of futility that you can’t seem to overcome, that nothing you do makes any difference.
It is an ideal breeding ground for shame as it is a dangerous place to be. The threat of shame is studied by the followers of the acclaimed author, speaker and research professor, who spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame. The painful experience of believing that we are flawed leads us to believe that we are not good enough. The reason shame is so dangerous is that it causes us to shrink and disengage. Humans are built for connection and lose ourselves if we don’t have it. This is a slippery slope that could lead to more devastating conditions such as anxiety, depression and addiction.
For me, it looked like this was becoming too much of a challenge. My brain couldn’t compute the simplest tasks anymore. My job is very collaborative which is something that I love about it but, when I was at peak burnout, I found myself increasingly nervous about collaborating because of the risk that my lack of ability would be discovered.
The sense that we are losing ourselves is the final sign. It is often described as an increase in cynacism and a decrease in caring and compassion. This can lead to a feeling of being detached from yourself and from your personality. Sometimes we might say, “I’m just not feeling myself today.” This is a perfectly natural feeling when it is felt from time to time, but if it lasts for weeks, months or even years then this is something to look into. Personalisation.
It can happen so slowly and subtly that we don’t even know it’s happening or that it’s being caused by our environment. There is nothing we can do to change who we are, so we can start to embody our personality change. We can change it for what it is worth. It’s never too late to find ourselves again and emerge from the darkness as our true, whole selves. In the next section, there will be more on that.
Depersonalisation can show up as no longer finding joy in the things that we love. You might be a person who enjoys working with people, but now you are angry towards them. As I type this, I am nodding my head enthusiastically. I like to hang out with my friends and colleagues and get to know them better. When I am burnt out, this is not the case. It is the last thing I want to do. Every interaction was an effort and an annoyance. My core values include compassion and kindness. I try to cultivate these values in my everyday life, but when I was burned out, it was safe to say that these went out the window.
The first step to recovering from burnout is developing self-awareness from your ability to notice the signs of burnout and spot them in yourself. From burning out to being bright.
I believe there are 5 remedies for burnout. These are the things that have had the biggest impact on me. Let’s move on from what it feels like to be tired and how we can tell it to do something about it. The good news is that the strategies we need to recover from burnout are very simple. The bad news is that if you were hoping for a crazy, magical revelation that you haven’t heard before, you’re going to be disappointed. I wouldn’t be writing this post right now if the strategies were easy. It isn’t easy to put into practice something that is simple to understand.
As I did in the last section, I will go through each one-by-one and share more about why I believe they are so important. Sleep and rest are in nature for a reason.
I am with you if you saw this and rolled your eyes. It seems obvious that it is patronising. I am aware of it. The truth is that we are a chronically sleep-deprived nation. Studies show that getting 7 hours of sleep is important for our health, and one suggests that if you sleep for less than seven hours a night, you are doing yourself a disservice. When we are so exhausted that we can barely keep our eyes open, we find that we still struggle to sleep due to our minds buzzing with to-do lists, stress and anxiety. It is not as simple as just sleep more. Rest and sleep together.
Good sleep hygiene is something for me. The slower pace of life that we were forced to live helped me to understand how much sleep I got. It has taken me upwards of 3 months of practicing good sleep hygiene to finally get my energy back.
I need to get into bed around 9pm so that I can meet the above. I get at least 8 hours of sleep every night.
I need to avoid screens and blue lights at least an hour before I go to bed. For 30 to 45 minutes, you can read in bed with a night light.
Rather than using a sound alarm to wake me up, I use a sunrise light. In the evening, drink calming tea.
I have been able to rest a lot this year due to embracing my shyness and being able to not always be busy doing anything. I have learned to be still and enjoy relaxing. Rest and relaxation was a concept that was foreign to me in the past. I think it is fair to say that I was not as productive as I could have been when I wasn’t working during the week or on the weekends. I was busy all the time. My exhaustion. I have not had much choice but to chill the fff out but I now realize that protecting time in my schedule is an absolute must. I use a sleep tracker to see what works for me.
Managing anxiety and emotional reactivity is what practicing calm and stillness is about. I have learned that it is linked to meditation. I used to think that meditation was synonymous withMindfulness I thought they were the same thing. I now know that the way in which we manage our emotions and impulses is actually through having perspective. One way to do this is by meditating. It is calm and still.
The boundaries are healthy. Journalling and regular self-reflection have worked for me. Making this a more intentional practice has been very powerful for me. I make time every Sunday to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. I think about the week ahead and set myself small, specific goals and think about what I need to do to make this happen. Every week, I spend a quiet moment with myself. It isn’t about giving myself a hard time for things I haven’t done. It is acknowledging, questioning and looking forward. I use guided journalling books like 5 Minutes to a Mindful You and The 6-Minute Diary to prove that even a small amount of calm and stillness each day can have a big and positive impact.
I think we should be taught about boundaries from an early age, because I now believe that they are so important. Setting boundaries isn’t easy and sticking to them is even harder. Sometimes they involve saying no to people and that can be difficult. The upside of having boundaries is that they protect our wellbeing, but also improve our relationships and interactions, as we are essentially sharing more of ourselves and how we operate.
There is a new alien concept for me, and you are likely to notice some themes about the person I used to be. Little rules that protect our energy and wellbeing are what I am referring to when I talk about boundaries. When we need alone time or who we are friends with.
I have to have time to myself before and after work. The boundaries that I have developed this year are the most important to me.
When I block out focus time in my work calendar, I can get into a flow state without distraction, and I protect this time like it is a client meeting. I don’t have any work apps on my phone so I’m only reachable when I’m online, which is when I’m on my laptop.
I spread my social meet-ups out so that I always have time to relax each week, because I no longer book social meet-ups in the closest available gap in my calendar. I take a lunch break for at least an hour.
There is time in nature. My stressors were heavily linked to my job, but boundaries don’t have to be work related. They could be with friends, family, romantic partners, hobbies, communities, or any other aspect of your life that you feel needs them
When I go for a walk in nature in the morning, I have a better day after that. I feel calmer and more reflective than anxious. It’s a combination of breathing fresh air, feeling sun or wind on my skin, and taking a moment to see the expanse before me that being outside allows. It can feel like we are trapped inside many boxes when we are in our homes for long periods. I live in a small apartment in London which feels like a small box sometimes with few options to go to. My laptop screen is in a smaller box which I use for my working day. My daily outside time is an escape from the boxes, and a time for me to check in with myself and the world around me.
Spending time in nature and being outside in green space can benefit our mental wellbeing. It might be hundreds of years since we were living our best hunter-gatherer lives but our need for connection with nature has not waned even as we have become more and more disconnected from it. Being in nature is a part of our genes.
It might seem strange but this is a big deal. For me, purpose is about doing things for a reason that is higher than materialistic gain. It helps us to go to sleep at night feeling grateful and fulfilled because it is a reason to get up in the morning. When we lose our sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, we can end up in some really dark and uncertain places. Our purpose is to show the light and bring us back to what is important. There is a purpose and a meaning.
It has been a big year for me in terms of finding myself and what is important for me. I feel more at ease now that I know this. I am able to prioritize how I spend my time. It makes it easier for me to say no to things that don’t align with my purpose and values. When I feel like something isn’t right, I have to ask what might be conflicting with what I believe to make me feel that way.
We have seen our normal life pulled from beneath our feet and this is even more important. We all need a sense of purpose to keep us going and to help us to see that there is still something worthwhile even when the noise of normal life is gone. I think that part of what led to overwork was because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I would work myself harder and harder in a desperate attempt to find meaning. It never felt good enough.
Is there anything that gets me up in the morning? To get closer to my purpose, I started by asking myself 3 questions.
I want to be remembered for something. When do I feel like I add the most value?
If you are wondering what my purpose is, I would say that it is always evolving, but what I have settled on is this:
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