At the time I didn’t know what it was. All I knew is I had lost meaning and purpose and couldn't go on anymore. Emotionally exhausted and slumped in my seat, all I could do when the flight attendant asked me if I needed anything was wave her away with my hand.
I had lost so much weight, I looked gaunt. During lift-off, I didn’t care if the plane crashed. Nothing mattered. I was on my way to sunny Jamaica, hoping to escape the pain of around-the-clock work and the subsequent burnout. I’m not alone. Many people have burnout and don't know it.
Up Close and Personal With Three Accomplished Women
I spoke with Arianna Huffington, Founder and CEO of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global. She writes in her book, Thrive: “On April 6, 2007, I woke up in a pool of my own blood. I was two years into building The Huffington Post. A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I had just returned from a week of taking my eldest daughter on a tour of prospective colleges, and, since she had insisted that I stay off my Blackberry during the day, I would stay up each night working. And so, the morning after we returned home, I woke up burned out and exhausted—and collapsed. The result was a broken cheekbone, several stitches over my eye and the beginning of a long journey. In the days that followed, I found myself in a lot of doctors’ waiting rooms, which, it turns out, are great places to think about life. And that’s what I did. I asked myself a lot of questions: Is this what success really looks like? Is this the life I want to lead? The answer was no. And the diagnosis I got from all the doctors was that I had a severe case of burnout.”
Political activist, Gloria Steinem, has been there, too, and here’s what she said: "Only when I was forced by one too many episodes of burnout did I begin to see work as an irreplaceable part of my life, but not the whole of my life. And only then did I begin to focus on what I could uniquely do instead of trying to do everything—thus beginning to be far more effective as a worker.”
I interviewed singer/songwriter and Broadway producer, Alanis Morissette, who told me her burnout was like a nervous breakdown: “There were so many versions of burnout. It was predictable for me. I would burnout and have the equivalent of a nervous breakdown about every three months. I would anticipate them. I knew they were coming, and they were equally intense. It would give me 17 minutes of permission to melt down. It’s horrifying, but it was as though the illness or the debilitation of the burnout was the only time I gave myself permission to rest. That’s not the case anymore because I lean on my friends and reach out in relationships, and having my kids pull me away from work. It’s a mandatory integration—it’s energy management versus time management and realizing my energy is limited. I used to think I was invincible. I could, in fact, just go and go that is until I burned out.”
What Are the Signs of Burnout?
No one is immune from burnout. It is rampant among us. If you’re at risk, you have one thing in common with these three extraordinary women: you don’t take care of yourself. Men are not immune, either. The incidences of burnout have risen in both genders in alarming numbers. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burnt out sometimes—that's two-thirds of the workforce. Burnout is nothing to be ashamed about. It’s a topic to be aware of and talk openly about so you know the signs and can prevent it.
In 1974 Herbert Freudenberger coined the buzzword "burnout." Until this year, burnout was considered a pop psychology term, unrecognized as a legitimate psychological or psychiatric disorder or an official disease, tossed around the office with abandon. That changed when the World Health Organization (WHO) reached a milestone officially classifying it as a medical diagnosis, including the condition in the International Classification of Diseases, the handbook that guides medical providers in diagnosing diseases.
It describes burnout as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Three symptoms can help you recognize it:
- 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 efficacy
It’s important that you know the signs and speak out when you see them. One important distinction is that burnout isn’t the same as stress, and you can’t cure it by taking an extended vacation, slowing down, or working fewer hours. Burnout is a totally different animal. Your system literally shuts down physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Under stress, you still struggle to cope with pressures.
Once burnout takes hold, you’re out of gas and you’ve given up all hope of surmounting your obstacles. When you’re suffering from burnout, it’s more than just fatigue. You have a deep sense of disillusionment and hopelessness that your efforts have been in vain. Life loses its meaning, and small tasks feel like a hike up Mount Everest. Your interests and motivation dry up, and you fail to meet even the smallest obligations. Here are more signs to watch for:
- Disillusionment/loss of meaning
- Mental and physical fatigue and exhaustion
- Moodiness, impatience, and short-tempered
- Loss of motivation and a reduced interest in commitments
- Inability to meet obligations
- Lowered immunity to illness
- Emotional detachment from previous involvements
- Feeling efforts are unappreciated
- Withdrawal from coworkers and social situations
- Hopeless, helpless, and depressed outlook
- Job absenteeism and inefficiency
- Sleep deprivation
- Foggy thinking and trouble concentrating
10 Tips for a Self-Care Plan
The solution to burnout is prevention. And the best prevention is a self-care plan. Here are 10 tips to prevent hitting your breaking point long before burnout sets in:
1. H-A-L-T. The acronym H-A-L-T stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.” This alert signal is a gentle reminder for you to stop, slow down, and bring yourself back into balance when you’re out of gas: eat when hungry, let out your anger in a constructive way, call someone if you’re lonely, and rest when tired.
2. Cushion your workday. To soften stress blows, avoid putting yourself under unrealistic deadlines. Replace “deadlines” with “lifelines.” Take “health days” in addition to “sick days.” Spread job tasks over reasonable time frames. Build time cushions between meetings. Try leaving for work 10 or 15 minutes earlier so you won’t start your day in a hurry. Ease into your workday instead of catapulting into it. To cut your health risks, dial back overtime work when possible. Toil by the adage of working smarter, not longer.
3. Dose with self-compassion. One of the best medicines against burnout is giving yourself regular doses of kindness: talk yourself off the ledge when you're uncertain; give yourself an “atta-boy” or “atta-girl” after success; soothe yourself after you fail, miss a deadline, or make a mistake; throw yourself a thumbs-up every time you finish a project, reach a successful milestone, or accomplish a goal. Studies show that coming down hard on yourself reduces your chances of rebounding. Instead of attacking yourself when things fall apart, a mindful, self-compassionate attunement eases you through.
4. Unplug. Managing your electronic devices instead of letting them manage you can offset burnout. Unplug at the end of the day and set boundaries to protect your personal and private time. Use custom ring tones for those you want to reach you after hours. Limit the number of times a day you check email or text. And ease up on instant messaging so you don’t create the expectation that you’re available 24/7.
5. Learn to say no. Draw the line when someone asks you to do something you don’t have time for. Tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do and put the rest out of the picture. Start to see this attitude as strong burnout prevention, not a weakness. When you say yes but mean no, you’re not taking good care of your mental or physical wellness and it leads to over-commitments.
6. Avoid multitasking. Studies show that multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and in fact that it takes longer to go from one task to the next because of the added time to refresh your memory of each task. People who focus on one task at a time are more efficient, productive, and effective at work/life harmony. And they’re less likely to burn out.
7. Practice mindfulness meditation. Meditating or contemplating at your desk for just five minutes is restorative. It helps you unwind, clear your head, and refresh your mind, body, and spirit. Pay attention to what’s around you and bring your attention to the present moment to reduce stress and generate more performance energy in a demanding job. Take off your socks and shoes and feel your toes against the floor. Pay close attention to how the floor feels against your feet. If you have an opened window, focus your senses on nature: sounds of chirping birds, the fragrance of blooming flowers, or sight of squirrels in the trees. Take 60 seconds to identify the sounds around you (traffic in the background, voices off in the distance, the gurgling of your stomach) then notice your heart rate slow, your muscles loosen, and your mind clear.
8. Nature bathe. Scientists report that getting outside for 120 minutes—no more and no less—a week is healing. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing (running, playing tennis, or walking) or how you break it up, two hours a week with Mother Nature gives your fatigued mind a break, boosts your mood, and recharges your batteries. Dine away from your desk outdoors, take a walk around the block, or sit in a park before returning to work.
9. Stack your positivity deck. Widen your positivity scope. Look for the upside of a downside situation. Find the opportunity in the difficulty. Think of a challenge as an adventure instead of a problem. Focus on the solution instead of the problem. Strive to see the gains in your losses, the beginnings in your endings.
10. Stay fit outside the office. Imagine you’re Simone Biles and think of your life as the Olympics. Your daily physical and mental endurance hinges on being in good shape. Prepare yourself for your workdays by taking care of your mental and physical health outside of work. Slow down and prime yourself with good nutrition, vigorous exercise, and ample sleep. Avoid nicotine and use alcohol in moderation.