Burnout is a serious concern that undermines our energy, attitude, and confidence. The fatigue that we are all feeling as a result of the continued pandemic-related stress may be a symptom of something more pervasive -- burnout.
Burnout happens when we have given all that we believe we have to give and yet know in our heart that there is still more needed. When burnout is on the horizon, you are likely going to experience its three main symptoms:
- Exhaustion. Addressing the physical aspects of this state, Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson defined burnout as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” Being constantly on our guard and changing our lives to respond to the pandemic has wiped out energy reserves and diminished the resilience for many.
- Disillusionment. Herbert J. Freudenberger focused on the psychological and emotional impact that burnout has on an individual. He defined it as “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” This may be especially reflected in the commitment to masks, social distancing, and hygiene that are believed to offer protection from illness, yet still being infected with the virus.
- Erosion of the Soul. Not only does burnout take a toll on the physical body and emotional well-being, it also eats away at what Maslach and Leiter considered the soul. They affirmed that burnout is defined as “the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will—an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral…” One example of this might be the need to isolate away from family members due to health concerns, yet feeling that you may have abandoned those who need you most. The prevalence of "Facetime lifetime goodbyes" took a huge toll on those who were unable to hold the hand of a beloved family member or friend as they died alone in the sterile hospital room.
It is the intersection of these three things that generates the huge toll that burnout can take on a person:
- You become chronically exhausted.
- You become cynical and detached from your work.
- You feel increasingly ineffective on the job.
In most work-related circumstances, we can’t just give up, we have to keep going—even when we’re running on empty.
Tips to help with Management and Recovery from Burnout
What should we do to handle the unrelenting demands of the job or the people we serve?
1. Deep breathing (and imagery). Still your body. Close your eyes. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing the air to be purified as it enters your body and travels down to your lungs. Expand your lungs in your chest and hold the breath for a couple of beats before slowly letting go of tension and stress and negative energy as you exhale through your mouth. You’ll feel calmer more quickly than you might have expected when you totally invest in this exercise.
2. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises. These allow you to relax your body, part by part, which can bring on a deep relaxation response.
3. Autogenic training. This is different from progressive muscle relaxation in that you focus not just on awareness of your body, you also imagine each part of your body growing heavy and warm, as you continue to affirm that your heart rate is slow and regular and your breathing is slow and regular. You are attending to these inner processes as well as each physical part of your body.
4. Managing stressful thinking. Cognitive behavioral therapy provides easy-to-apply interventions for negative thinking. Thought stopping is one in which you train yourself to recognize when a negative thought is arriving and to consciously stop yourself from allowing it to take hold. Some people use a rubber band around their wrist that they snap when the thought begins as a physical reminder to take control of their thoughts. Train yourself to respond to negative thinking with positive, solution-focused replacement thoughts. For instance, if you’re upset because the work day has ended on a stressful note, rather than holding onto resentment and anger, remind yourself of something pleasant you’ll enjoy when the workday is over.
5. Diet and Exercise/Yoga. Research has finally confirmed what parents have been telling their kids for generations: Eating fresh fruits and veggies is essential to health and well-being. People who consume their “recommended daily amount” of healthy fresh foods actually are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Our bodies rely on us to make healthy choices so that they can function best. It’s the same with exercise: People who exercise regularly (even through less intense activities like walking and yoga) are healthier and more able to handle stress and anxiety effectively and exercise decreases depressive symptoms, as well.
6. Avoiding harmful practices (i.e., smoking). Just don't. You know what's bad for you and you need to make good choices when you're dealing with difficult situations.
7. Time management. Make time to care for yourself, not just those in whose service you are employed.
8. Strong social connections. Friendship and healthy family ties can be the most effective remedy for psychological and emotional distress, but poor relationships can exacerbate stress. Make wise choices when deciding with whom you want to spend your leisure time.
10. Balanced lifestyle. Making time for healthy pursuits and keeping a balance between leisure, work, family, and other obligations can help you keep a balanced perspective on all aspects of your life.
11. Counseling. When you can’t handle everything on your own, rather than being a burden to those you love, reach out to a professional for assistance.
12. Keeping a stress chart/personal journal. Journaling gives you a place to record and express your feelings, which can be cathartic in itself. A stress journal helps you learn to recognize your triggers and this gives you time to prepare for those triggers you can’t avoid and to avoid the ones that you aren’t obliged to face.
13. Forgiveness. When you hold a grudge or resentment, the only person who will suffer is you. Letting go of the negative feelings and forgiving (even just in your own heart and mind) another’s wrongs is what will free you from the damage they have done.
14. Rediscovering your purpose and meaning in life and work. Think back to what drew you to the career you’re in. What were the anticipated benefits? The perks? The reasons you followed this path? What are you doing that makes a difference to others or the world in general? Sometimes when we hit a rough patch in a relationship, when we let ourselves go back to the beginning and recall what drew us to a person, it can help us rediscover the appreciation and the fulfilment that they brought to our lives. It can be the same with work.
15. Spiritual disciplines/Transpersonal awareness. Whether you’re reciting prayers, meditating, or communing with the natural world, when you let yourself reach beyond the “here and now” into the greater universe, you can feel the earthbound burdens lighten and the connection to something beyond yourself strengthen you, emotionally and spiritually—and even physically through increased calm, deeper breathing, and a diminished heart rate.
Maslach & Leiter, The Truth About Burnout