Back in the 70’s, American Psychologist described the consequence of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.
Put simply, burnout is the consequence of doing too much, for too long. It is when the demands of the task in hand outweigh your ability to do them over a long period of time.
Nowadays, the term is as relevant as ever.
Fast paced living, high expectations, technological accessibility – they all add up and it can take their toll on our lives, our well-being and our health. A healthy amount of stress can be good for us, but we need to recognise when that stress becomes too much, for too long, and starts to impact negatively.
So, What is Burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
It is the reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterised by three main dimensions:
2. cynicism (less identification with the job), and
3. feelings of reduced professional ability.
Burnout can affect anyone. However, there is a growing number of entrepreneurs, business owners, and freelancers who are reporting symptoms of burnout - up to 60% in the UK. It is most common in people between the ages of 25 and 44. 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% feeling burnt out sometimes.
It's the “I can do everything” personalities that suffer the most and because of our nature we rarely see it coming until it has hit us full whack in the face. I'm guilty here - I fall right into this category. Because I'm passionate about what I do, I don’t notice when I'm repeatedly working long days, and often nights. I don’t notice that I haven’t had a break in days, or that I'm not eating right because I'm so immersed in my work. I also put enormous pressure on myself – I am my own worst nightmare. Chuck a bit of Impostor Syndrome, and you got me sussed out.
I skirted close to burnout recently. Luckily, I was able to identify and take precautionary steps, but the experience made me realise that there are many who might not be so aware.
Now, burnout is a slippery little sucker. It creeps up on you, ever so slightly, so you don’t really notice that you are suffering more and more each day – it's that thing where you see someone every day, you don’t notice change – don’t see someone for a month and the changes smack you in the face.
We don’t notice the signs of burnout in ourselves because it’s a gradual thing, effecting us little by little over a space of time.
Burnout leaves you feeling exhausted. I don’t mean tired. I mean, can’t keep your eyes open, exhausted, but it will also leave you with insomnia – burnout is a bitch like that. Your mental alertness will be affected – poor concentration, memory not working quite as well as it was, losing interest in doing most things you once were so passionate about, cynical in your outlook – but remember, this is all a slow, creeping process. Hit all at once, sure we would notice in a heartbeat, but when it's ever so slightly, it’s not so easy.
Your immune system will be impacted – you start to collect colds like they’re going out of fashion, you may have the onset of depression – feeling sad, occasionally weepy. Of course, you’ll put this down to being tired at first.
Here’s the worst bit – as the symptoms become stronger, they are self-perpetuating. Everything becomes harder, so you fall behind, which adds the pressure, which makes everything harder.
You may also get angry. Angry at yourself, angry at your family, angry at the world. As you feel more and more frustrated, you will express yourself in ways you normally don’t. Your body starts to realise it can’t cope with this level of pressure anymore.
Burnout's a bitch, alright.
So, how do we recognise and, more importantly, avoid this invisible disease?
Well, there are five stages of burnout:
1. Honeymoon Phase
2. Onset of stress
3. Chronic stress
5. Habitual burnout
Let’s paint a picture.
You’ve been given a new project. You’re excited to start, wanting to put the hours in, passionate to get results – this is the Honeymoon Phase. But, over time, working those long hours starts to impact. The everyday stress increases and starts tipping over to “too much”, and it’s a constant. You just don’t realise it.
You start to work longer hours – it starts to feel draining. The project takes over your thoughts more than it should. You start to question you results, your deliverables, your standard of work. You feel the effects of stress – but this project has to be done, and it feels as though you’re working every hour but just not producing what you should be.
As time goes by, that stress becomes chronic, and starts effecting your health. You start to lose interest – too tired to care, but unable to sleep. You are headed straight for burnout. The effects can spill out into your personal life. You are snappy with your family. Grumpy. Negative and cynical. Even though you know this isn’t you, you cant help yourself.
You feel stuck and the outlook starts to look pretty hopeless. Before you know it, you’re in full burnout.
See how easily it creeps up on you?
Research shows that burnout isn’t just a state of mind –it can have lasting and devastating effects on your body and your brain.
Burnout can impair our cognitive functionality – it can change the neurology of our brain. As we age, the frontal cortex of our brain – the part responsible for cognitive function - thins. Burnout causes this thinning to happen without the help of time – it ages our brains faster than would naturally occur. It also increases wear and tear on other parts of our brain.
Furthermore – a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University found that within the top 20% of those suffering the effects of burnout, evidence of increased chance of coronary heart disease by 79% was displayed. Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing more than 370,000 people each year just in the United States.
That’s huge. And terrifying.
Burnout is no joke.
Business without burnout
The good news is that the effects of burnout can be reversed. It will take time, and self-love, as your body has been under an immense period of stress for, in some cases, many years, but we can repair the damage caused. Prevention is always better than cure and burnout can be avoided if we are aware, in tune and open to the signs our bodies give us.
Remember to listen to your body. Look for signs that it is telling you to slow down. Plan your day to make sure you take breaks – regular time away from your laptop.
Look after your body. Drink lots of water and eat well. A good nights’ sleep can do wonders also. Try not to use your screen an hour before bedtime, keep your bedroom cool and avoid too much alcohol, no matter how tempting the bottle may be.
Looking after yourself can be, and must be, habitual. You may have to force these habits at first, but, over time, they will become habits. You will find that, by looking after yourself, your productivity will increase, the standard of the work you produce will rise – taking breaks will have a positive effect on what you produce.
A rested, healthy body is an efficient, productive body.
If you feel you are suffering from burnout, or are headed that way, please do seek professional help. Talk to your doctor, a friend, anyone. Talking is the first step.
Look at your workload. Do you really need to be the one responsible for all the outstanding tasks? Are you even the most appropriate person to complete all the tasks? Can you delegate or outsource? Start to look at your workload pragmatically. Offloading onto others more suited isn't failure, nor is it giving in...its working smarter not harder.
Im always open to a friendly cvhat if you need advice on management of workload, time management, or how to build in good mental health practices into the foundations of your business. I learned the gard way, so you dont have to.
Look after yourself!