Burnout is not only a new trendy buzzword, it’s actually an experience that is becoming more and more common especially after the global pandemic. In fact, according to a recent survey this year, 59% of employees report feeling burned out, which is up from 13.5% just two years ago.
But what is burnout? How do you know if you’re burned out? What causes to it? And how do we recover? I’m going to be answering all of those questions here.
What is burnout?
Before we get any further, it’s really important for us to define what burnout is. The World Health Organization recently updated their definition in the International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual to say this:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
The manual goes on to say that “burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Anecdotally, though, in my near decade of experience coaching high achievers I have seen burnout that is experienced due to chronic stress outside of their workplace. The word “occupation” is one that before my partner became an Occupational Therapist I would have understood with a limiting definition. “Occupation” doesn’t just have to refer to how you earn a living. In fact, the World Federation of Occupational Therapists defines occupation as: “the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families and with communities to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. Occupations include things people need to, want to and are expected to do.”
So now, if we combine those definitions I believe we get a very holistic definition of burnout. Here, on this podcast, we will define burnout as “a syndrome of symptoms caused by insufficiently managed chronic stress resulting from internal and external pressures to consistently perform activities that an individual needs to do, wants to do, and is expected to do.”
Now, what are those syndromes of symptoms?
What Burnout Feels Like
Chronic stress, as we’ll discuss in another series of episodes, has its own spectrum of symptoms but what differentiates it from burnout are the following:
- Feeling depleted of mental, emotional, and physical energy or feeling completely exhausted of all energy in any of those spheres
- Feeling mental distance, disengagement, cynicism or negativity from the meaningful occupations and activities that used to bring fulfillment and joy
- Lack of consistent motivation, productivity, and efficiency in your day-to-day life activities
These symptoms show that you are in the final stage of the stress response and that your body has eventually made the decision to rest for you. It’s important to note here that not all experiences of chronic stress will inevitably lead to burnout, in fact that’s not the case at all. There are many CEO’s, professional athletes, artists, prolific writers, parents, and us regular humans that live very busy lives with a lot of internal and external pressure to do a lot and do it well.
It’s not the chronic stress itself that leads to burnout. It’s chronic stress without an adequate nervous system and energy recovery that leads to burnout.
As we’ll discuss in later episodes, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, going on vacation – these can help prevent burnout. But depending on the individual, it likely will not be enough. Again, we’ll get into that in more detail in future episodes, so for now let’s talk about the contributing factors that lead to burnout.
What causes burnout?
You’re going to hear me say this a lot here, but my answer is “it depends.” Just like how two people experiencing the same situation interpret it differently and how one person may experience trauma but the other one will not – two people can be in the same experience, and one will experience burnout and the other will not.
However, there are some risk factors for burnout that help point the way to identify which cause(s) need to be addressed.
- You are as a high achiever
- You are as highly sensitive person
- You are a people pleaser
- You work so hard that your workplace would have to hire two to three people to replace you if you left your job
- You are a perfectionist (either overt or covert)
- You have a lot of hobbies and commitments and people often tell you they have no idea how you get it all done
These, combined with our modern-day capitalist society, are a recipe for burnout. The way that we’re brought up perpetuates these societal expectations and, some believe, even train us to be better producers – which means that our worth continually gets tied up in what we can accomplish in a day – which pushes us into the cycle of burnout as well. But there’s an important part of our understanding of burnout that is often misrepresented and misunderstood. Burnout is not a cycle – it’s a wave.
The Truth About Burnout
Normally when we talk about burnout, we talk about it as a cycle and visualize it in a circular model where you have the fully optimized, peak-performance version of you at the top, and then we start to slide down over the one side and become less and less efficient and have less and less energy until we crash and land in burnout at the bottom. Then, our body forces us to rest and we try some of the superficial self-care strategies out there and feel a bit better and we get back to life and tackle it in the same way before we burnt out.
The truth is, though, with common self-care methods and without any habit change, we don’t get back up to our peak performance space. We feel better, absolutely, but we come up just shy of where we started as that fully optimized version of you.
The next time we burn out we fall harder than we did the first time, and then crawl our way back out of burnout up into some degree of function. Over time, this peak to the wave keeps getting lower and lower until it feels like there’s not much difference between being burnt out and living your life.
You’re surviving, and that’s about it, which we both know is no way to live your life. You deserve better, and maybe you know that too, but where do you go from here?
How do you recover from burnout?
Over my time working with other highly sensitive high achievers, I have discovered that there are three phases to recovering from burnout and preventing it from ever happening again.
First, you have to Recover. When we’re burnt out, our nervous system is dysregulated and working on overdrive. Our liver and our stress responses have exhausted all efforts to get us the energy we need to be successful in what we’re trying to do. This then, in turn, makes it really hard for us to make any positive changes in our life and we’re truly running on our ingrained habits. This is why, in the Flow State App, we look to capitalize on the little pockets of time between activities, for example, to do a 60-second guided meditation, or a 15 minute yoga class, or a 3 minute breathwork exercise.
When you’re burned out, the idea of adding anything else onto your list is truly unfathomable. You have nothing left to give, especially to yourself, so we have to start small and start healing your exhausted nervous system. We get you back up to the top of one of the waves (maybe a higher wave that if you were do try this on your own).
Now, instead of heading back down another wave into another experience of burnout, we can start to address your current habits to stop the perpetuation of exhaustion and energy depletion. This is where the Optimize phase comes in and you can start to objectively look at your external reality, your decisions and actions that keep you pushing yourself back down the curve.
Now that your nervous system is continuing to heal because you have adjusted your external habits to better support your optimal performance, it’s time to dive in and Elevate your thought patterns.
You’ll see in the list of risk factors there are a lot of them that are related to the internal belief systems that can be taught to us and strengthened over time. It is possible to bring into balance your high achiever, people pleaser, highly sensitive nature, perfectionism and everything else we can use to sabotage ourselves. But the only way to do this is to look within, release that which is sabotaging and strengthen that which is serving.
I know that this all went by a little fast, but consider this the introductory chapter to the guidebook that will help you fully recover from burnout and prevent it from happening again. Each episode of this podcast is going to expand on the concepts touched on here so that you can Recover from burnout, Optimize your habits and Elevate your impact on your corner of the world.
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