Burnout is one of the biggest buzzwords of 2021 — but do you know what it is? And do you know if you’re experiencing it?
The word was first introduced in the 70’s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, but wasn’t officially recognized as a clinical term until 2019, when the World Health Organization added it to the big book of official diagnoses. According to the WHO, burnout is a “syndrome” (a group of symptoms that all stem from a common cause) caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
During the pandemic, we’ve learned that workplace stress is not the only kind that leads to burnout. In fact, anything that consistently pushes you past the threshold of what you can give can cause burnout — even things that you’re passionate about, such as working at your dream job or caring for your children. So if anything can be at the root of burnout, how do you know if you’re experiencing it? You look for the signs. The main bundle of co-occurring symptoms include emotional and physical exhaustion; a sense of disconnection; a sense that you are less effective than usual; a change in motivation; and a change in healthy upkeep. Of course, the nuances of burnout symptoms vary from individual to individual, but start taking note of any of the above signs as burnout has a sneaky way of settling in inconspicuously, then ramping up fast.
Imagine it like this: your ability to expend energy is measured on an old school glass thermometer. Every day that you expend energy on a task or set of connected tasks, the temperature climbs. Typically, if you haven’t overspent yourself, the temperature falls back to its starting point over an evening of rest. If you over expend your energy during the day, it takes a longer time for the temperature to return to its typical starting point. Thus, even though you recharge some overnight, you still start the next day with a slightly higher temperature. If you keep this over expenditure up over time, your temperature crosses the threshold into a fever-zone, which your brain and body struggle to handle. Unaddressed, the temperature continues to climb and your mental and physical health take a toll.
The tricky thing about burnout is that it doesn’t go away when you take your lunch break, get a good night’s rest, or even take a day off from your responsibilities. That temperature descends slowly and needs to get back down below the fever-zone before you’ll return to your optimal level of functioning. Many of us, however, don’t have the option (and often don’t want) to step away from the root cause of our burnout for as many days as it takes to reset.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go cold turkey on whatever is causing your burnout. There are ways to manage it and find relief without sending the kids to grandpa’s, quitting your job, or dropping out of school.
Chatting with those around you about what you are feeling is the best first step. Reach out to a supportive person in your life who is especially good at listening but doesn’t fall into the misery-loves-company category. Talk to your friend and feel the relief that comes with feeling heard. Some people have trouble thinking about their burnout as a legitimate syndrome worthy of support. Let yourself hear the words of your loved ones — it’s very likely that they will validate your feelings. Most of us go through each day accomplishing superhuman feats and end the day thinking we should have done more. Upon sharing, you may notice that your burnout is justified and it can motivate you to tend to it.
Do you juggle a handful of competing priorities at all times? Usually, one or two take up the majority of our energy while the other two or three, or five, or ten stay on the back burner. Set a timer for an hour and dedicate that time to re-evaluating what you can focus your energy on. How can you shift your focus yet continue being productive?
If you’ve been chipping away at a work project for months, can you ask your employer to switch you to a new project or ask a colleague to focus on one part of the project while you shift gears to another?
If childcare responsibilities are burning you out, can you and your partner trade duties? Can you switch off cooking nights with a set of parent-friends while the kids entertain one another out back?
Reach out for professionally trained support by speaking to a therapist. You can tell them about the ways in which you feel overtaxed or burdened; the things which spark less joy than they used to; the ways your physical and mental state interrupt your ability to live life fully. A therapist can connect the dots to unearth what is at the core of your burnout.
Whether the therapist helps you identify the source of your burnout symptoms or you come in already knowing it, the next step is to learn how you can effectively come down from the burnout fever. At a time when your mental reserves are low, a therapist can play a critical role in determining suitable solutions that don’t interfere with your goals and commitments. Together, you will develop strategies to implement those solutions that require minimal effort but deliver maximum relief.
Georgetown Psychology offers online therapy, which is a great option when you feel low on energy and motivation — in fact, you don’t even have to leave the sofa.