Running out of gas?
Recognising the signs of burnout before it’s too late
Burnout is one of those work hazards in life that people who care for/about others really should be keeping a close eye out for, but sadly—often because of their “I can manage” personalities, they rarely see it coming. Professional, voluntary and home-based carers are often so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that they’re working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy workloads, and putting enormous pressure on themselves; all of which make them ripe for burnout.
Burnout is not a one-size fits all, nor is it only one set of symptoms. I have highlighted commonalities for many people who I have worked with, treated and experienced personally. Look at your own history of past challenges and how you have been affected, then pick out pieces to build your own picture, of what is not normal for you.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:
physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion
cynicism and detachment feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment self-doubt and devaluation of self-worth.
When in the throes of full-fledged burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. However, burnout doesn’t happen suddenly. You don’t wake up one morning and all of a sudden “have burnout.” Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognise. Our bodies and minds do give us warnings, often so do very courageous friends or relatives. If you know what to look for, you can recognise it, before it’s too late. Recovery from burnout is a long ardious road, to tread.
What are the signs of burnout?
Each of the four areas described above is characterised by certain signs and symptoms (although there is overlap in some areas). These signs and symptoms exist along a continuum. In other words, the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree, which means that the earlier you recognise the signs, the better able you will be to avoid burnout (If you do something to address the symptoms when you recognise them).
Signs of physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion:
Chronic fatigue. – In the early stages, you may feel a lack of energy and feel tired most days. Your joints ache and your muscles feel tense or tender. Whatever area in your body is a weak area, you will suffer more niggles there; headaches, nausea, heartburn, etc. In the latter stages, you feel physical, psychologically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted. You also, take on unrealistic thoughts and beliefs about everyday situations and people around you. You may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.
Insomnia, problems getting to sleep, or staying asleep for more than a couple of hours. In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week, thoughts and fears tumbling through your mind. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep and you become very anxious.
Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up. Even people, places and tasks that seemed simple before, become very difficult. This can cause errors in judgement, mistakes at work and at home, which in extreme could be life-threatening for you, or somebody else.
Physical symptoms. – Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed). You may also feel like your fingers, ankles, etc. are expanding, your rings and shoes feel tight, as well as bursting into tears/or getting angry at very small incidences (blowing them out of proportion).
Increased illness. Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
Changes in eating habits. Loss of appetite In the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals; or you will eat much more of the unhealthy food, relying on sugar and/or caffeine input. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight, or on the other hand having replaced proper meals for fast, easy to eat snacks, meals, sweets, breads and fizzy drinks, putting on a lot of weight, which reinforces the lack of self-worth in yourself.
Anxiety – Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes with your ability to work productively and may cause problems in your personal life. Isolation is an easy option, cutting yourself off from even people you do like. Making excuses about why you cannot meet up.
Depression – In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped, severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you. (If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.
Anger – At first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. (If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, seek immediate professional assistance.)
Signs of Cynicism and Detachment – Loss of enjoyment. At first, loss of enjoyment may seem very mild, such as not wanting to go to work or being eager to leave. Without intervention, loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of your life, including the time you spend with family and friends. At work, you may try to avoid projects and figure out ways to escape work all together.
Pessimism – At first, this may present itself as negative self-talk and/or moving from a glass-half-full to a glass-half-empty attitude. At its worst, this may move beyond how you feel about yourself and extend to trust issues with coworkers and family members and a feeling that you can’t count on anyone.
Isolation. In the early stages, this may seem like mild resistance to socializing (i.e., not wanting to go out to lunch; closing your door occasionally to keep others out). In the latter stages, you may become angry when someone speaks to you, or you may come in early or leave late to avoid interactions.
Detachment is a general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. It can take the form of the isolative behaviors described above, and result in removing yourself emotionally and physically from your job and other responsibilities. You may call in sick often, stop returning calls and emails, or regularly come in late.
Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment – Feelings of apathy and hopelessness. This is similar to what is described in the depression and pessimism sections of this article. It presents as a general sense that nothing is going right or nothing matters. As the symptoms worsen, these feelings may become immobilising, making it seems like “what’s the point?”
Increased irritability. – Irritability often stems from feeling ineffective, unimportant, useless, and an increasing sense that you’re not able to do things as efficiently or effectively as you once did. In the early stages, this can interfere in personal and professional relationships. At its worst, it can destroy relationships and careers.
Lack of productivity and poor performance.– Despite long hours, chronic stress prevents you from being as productive as you once were, which often results in incomplete projects and an ever-growing to-do list. At times, it seems that as hard as you try, you can’t climb out from under the pile.
If you’re not experiencing any of these problems, that’s great! However, you should keep these warning signs in mind, remembering that burnout is an insidious creature that creeps up on you as you’re living your busy life.
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, this should be a wake-up call that you may be on a dangerous path. Take some time to honestly assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it’s too late.
Burnout isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life. As hard as that may seem, it’s the smartest thing to do because making a few little changes now will keep you in the race with a lot of gas to get you across the finish line.
For ideas on reducing stress and symptoms of burnout, you may want to contact me on www.lindasage.com/contact