Recently, the World Health Organisation took the step of expanding on its definition of burnout and defining it as an occupational issue arising out of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. They characterise burnout as having three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
The factors which cause workplace stress are sometimes external to you (under-resourcing, unmanageable workloads, and lack of support) which means there isn’t always an easy answer or an immediate solution. However, it’s important to know the signs that you might be burning out so that you can take steps to manage your own self-care.
1. Beware the exhaustion funnel
When you feel overwhelmed and have difficulty coping, usually the first things you drop from your schedule are those which seem non-essential, such as catching up with friends or getting to your yoga class. You start off with a wide, full life that includes work, leisure, friends etc., and one by one, the activities that are most important for your wellbeing fall away. As you spiral down into the funnel, your world becomes smaller and narrower until the only thing left is work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the most conscientious workers who are most at risk since they’re likely to pride themselves on a job well done and continue to work longer and harder to get on top of things.
The answer: It’s crucial that you prioritise getting enough sleep, doing things that support your wellbeing and that you resist the temptation to drop self-care activities in favour of getting work down. Make time to see friends and do things that bring you joy.
2. Watch your self-talk
One common characteristic of burnout is being self-critical and doubting your ability to do the job. As you become more stressed, it’s common to become forgetful, to make careless mistakes or to be disconnected and distractible. These symptoms of mental overload are seen as evidence that you’re not performing and that you need to work harder to lift your game. When your sense of self-worth and self-confidence is tied to your work performance, you’re more likely to keep pushing yourself to the point of breakdown.
The answer: Take some time to practice mindfulness meditation (it should help you to slow down and think more clearly) and use mindful awareness to observe any negative thoughts and let them go. When you recognise that self-critical thoughts are symptoms of stress and burnout, you’re in a better place to detach from them instead of allowing yourself to be defined by them.
3. Keep perspective
It might be very clear to everyone around you that you’re reaching crisis point while you’re telling yourself you just need to reach this deadline or get through this tough period and everything will be fine. The problem with chronic workplace stress is that when you spend all your time in an environment where everyone is pushed to the limit, you adapt and begin to accept it as normal. When that happens it’s hard to step back and get the perspective you need to realise that the situation is not normal, the environment may well be toxic, and you are in danger of serious health issues.
The answer: Speak to people who you can trust to give you impartial advice and be open to listening to what they have to say. It might be a trusted friend or better still, you might want to seek support from your GP or a psychologist, who can help you get clarity on your situation and assist you with putting strategies into place to restore your health and happiness.
When we spend so much of our time at work, it’s no wonder that workplace happiness is directly linked to overall happiness. That’s why I chose to write Crappy to Happy: Love What You Do. In it I’ve outlined 10 steps to finding more meaning at work. If you’re looking to experience more fulfilment, satisfaction and sense of purpose every day, you can pick up a copy at all good bookstores.