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Cooling the Burn

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein


Do you lack motivation? Do you feel mentally drained, physically exhausted and find it difficult to concentrate? Do you believe yourself to be underappreciated in the workplace, and convinced that you’re being underpaid? Depending on the timeframe, regularity and the severity of such emotions, it may be that you’re simply stressed and in need of a break or good holiday; or, it may be that you’re experiencing overachiever syndrome, more commonly called ‘burnout’—a far sharper affliction and one that is far more consequential. 


“We are recognising burnout as something that’s just like diabetes,” psychiatrist Dr Shimi Kang tells Global News. “The same connection is emerging with the mental health diagnosis—burnout is a lifestyle-related condition.”


New Zealand’s Association of Salaried Medical Specialists recently warned of a “burnout crisis” affecting around half of specialists, putting patients’ lives at risk. A 2016 YouGov study of the UK workforce concluded more than half of Brits are showing serious sign of burning out and according to a US study, 95% of human resource departments state burnout to be the main inhibitor of turnover. Though no company model is immune, those with more than 2,500 are especially at risk. But it’s not just productivity rates and sales figures that are affected, health and home life suffer through burnout, too.


“You don’t wake up one morning and all of a sudden ‘have burnout’,” writes psychologist Sherrie Bourg, author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, for Psychology Today. “Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognise.”


So how does one recognise burnout?

While stress is usually relatively fleeting and can even serve as a spur to get stuff done, burnout is likely to result in a drop in your professional productivity, even though you may feel you’re doing just as much—or even more—work. Dr Kang says that we’re mostly equipped to deal with bouts of short-term stress, but burnout—the result of ongoing, chronic stress— is a whole different matter. Burnout feeds burnout, not only affecting the areas of the brain that modulate our stress response, but “making our brains more vulnerable to neurotoxins”. 


Short term stress is the manifestation of our fight-or-flight response, raising adrenaline and cortisol (our ‘stress’ hormone) levels and giving us a boost of energy. Way back when, it would have helped us outrun or outthink giant beasts that wanted to eat us, but nowadays it’s more likely to help us make that deadline or deliver that presentation with panache. But while it has served as a highly useful evolutionary tool, our bodies are ill-equipped to deal with a constant state of such enhanced alertness, and eventually it will have the opposite effect. Other physical burnout symptoms include loss of appetite (or, paradoxically, weight gain), regular stomach upsets, coughs and colds, headaches, tight shoulders, or a stiff neck. 


You may feel emotionally detached from your work, trapped, helpless, or in a continuous state of anxiousness or self-doubt. Another common symptom of burnout is procrastination, which of course simply serves to fuel that fear fire. 


Switching off completely may not be the best medicine (but regularly switching off those devices is), rather finding other ways to stimulate the brain. Take up a hobby (one that is wholly unrelated to work), read more, mediate, eat well, exercise and harvest social interactions with friends and family not through Facebook, but in real life. 


Make daily to-do lists, get better organised, but know that you are not perfect, and that you will make mistakes. Take proper lunchbreaks, don’t be afraid to ask for help from colleges or to speak with your boss or human resources team if things are getting too much. Accept your limitations and learn to say “no”. Ultimately, be prepared that you may need to make some serious life considerations, for no job is worth more than your mental health.


“A lot of coping with burnout is knowing what you can change and what you cannot change,” Juan Sanchez, professor of management and international business at Florida International University, tells the Miami Herald. “When you have the overwhelming feeling you can’t get results, it is time to make a change.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces