Most demanding careers practically guarantee stress, but if you're feeling completely exhausted, unable to concentrate, or as though you're neglecting your own well-being, you may be suffering from burnout. It's a very real condition that's easy to ignore, but you can detect and fix the problem if you know what to do. Here's how.
We often use the term "burnout" as a vague label for an exhausting day or week of hard work, but actual burnout is quite a bit more serious. I experienced serious burnout at my first job out of university. I always knew something was wrong because of the long hours and high levels of stress, but I didn't realise what it was doing to me until my parents came to visit, saw the disastrous state of my apartment and made me aware of what I'd been trying to ignore. (I'm usually a very tidy person, so even a small mess indicates a problem.)
After leaving that job, I learnt more about burnout, how my life was a perfect (and extreme) example, and what I needed to do to change it. Burnout can be bad, but it isn't insurmountable. You simply need to recognise the symptoms, identify the causes and take action — both in the short and long term — to remedy the issues you uncover. In this post, we're going to look at how to do those three things.
How to Identify Burnout and Its Cause
Burnout isn't as simple as extreme exhaustion. When you're truly burnt out, there's very little you'll do that isn't necessary for survival. You won't find a regular holiday very refreshing. You not only lose interest in the work that burnt you out in the first place, but in nearly everything else that you do. Fun won't be fun, every little thing will bother you, and you'll be unhappy without fully understanding why. You'll feel this way on a regular basis, and you'll probably believe there isn't an alternative. Of course, many people describe the symptoms of burnout a little bit differently so I've compiled a list from a few sources (including my own experience) to provide a broad view of what burnout can look and feel like:
- A generally negative attitude, often paired with the feeling that nothing is going to work out.
- Inability to concentrate.
- General apathy towards your work, chores and other tasks.
- Feelings of stagnation.
- A lack of interest in social activities and being with others.
- Difficulty with healthy habits like exercise, diet and regular sleep.
- Feeling like you're never doing enough.
- Neglecting your own needs (and putting the needs of others ahead of your own).
- Personal values and beliefs lose their importance.
- Short temper.
- Constant exhaustion.
- Feelings of inefficacy.
- Feelings of detachment from people and things you care about.
- Frequent boredom.
- Psychosomatic complaints, such as headaches, lingering colds and other issues with a cause that's difficult to identify.
- The denial of these feelings.
Because you may not always be able to identify these issues in yourself, it helps to ask friends or family members that you trust for help. Not only can they provide a useful outside opinion, but they can often offer examples of why they believe you are burnt out. When you're having trouble seeing the problem yourself, these examples can help you realise it's really there. Chances are they will tell you that you're working so much that they never see you anymore. Especially honest friends and family members will tell you that you seem disconnected and aren't as fun to be around as you once were. Be prepared to hear that you're currently not at your best and why.
Once you've identified that you are burnt out, you need to figure out why. For the most people, this should be fairly simple because it will be the primary source of your frustration and will take up the majority of your time. When I was burnt out because of a previous job, I found that I rarely had the ability to concentrate on much else. Even when someone was talking to me, I'd often be thinking about problems at my job or worrying about work I needed to finish. I finally decided I needed to quit when a friend was telling me about an important issue in his life, he asked me what I thought, and my response was "I hate my job". I gave notice the following Monday. Jobs aren't the only source of burnout, however, but how you find that source is generally the same. Pay attention to what's consuming your thoughts and you should have your answer.
How to Undo the Effects of Burnout
Once you've identified and accepted that you're truly burnt out, you need to change it. It takes a while for burnout to manifest, and so it can take a while to undo as well. You'll need to be ready to make serious changes and stick with them for a while. The good news is that once you start making these changes, you should start to feel more motivated again. Often times change is the necessary catalyst to make you feel like things are going to get better. By taking these changes slowly and rolling them out over a long period of time (e.g. a year or more), you can keep yourself on track.
Cut Off the Source of the Burnout
Before you can make any changes, you have to figure out which ones are relevant. That will, for the most part, depend on the source of your burnout. Whatever is at the source, you need to cut it off. If your source of burnout is job-related, figure out what the problem is and do everything you can to change it. If you change isn't an option within your job, it may be time to quit. That's a scary prospect regardless of the current unemployment rate, so be sure to have enough savings in place to survive for at least a few months or have another job lined up.
When considering your next job, you'll want to concentrate on two things: a comfortable schedule and control. Your schedule is important because you don't want to be overworked. For many people, burnout originates from too many hours on the job and too little time for oneself. Also, having more control over your work is also relevant, because you're coming from a situation where you had very little control over your own life. If you move into a job that provides more responsibility, it'll help you feel like things are getting back on track. This also means that you don't want to rule out jobs you wouldn't have considered previously. Apply for jobs that you think you're unqualified to get — because you might be surprised and actually get one of them — and also apply for a job or two that you think you're too qualified to want — because that kind of job might offer the flexibility and control you need. If you can afford to take a large chunk of time off (e.g. a month or more) before heading back to the working world, however, you should. While a vacation won't solve the problem, it will at least help you generate a little more energy before you take your next steps.
Not every source of burnout can be swapped for something better. If for whatever reason there is no way for you to cut off the source of burnout entirely, you need to get as much help as possible to lighten your load. Ask your friends and family to assist where they can so you have more personal time to figure out a long-term solution to your problem.
Chances are you have a daily routine, and that's in part because you're unmotivated to do a whole lot beyond what you're used to doing every day when you're burnt out. Simply doing something completely out of the ordinary can make a huge difference. If you sit on your butt all day, go take a walk in the park. If you're constantly connecting with technology, try playing cards or board game. If you always wake up early, sleep in. If you like to sleep in, trying getting up early. Reversing your routine is a simple way to feel refreshed and it takes very little work.
Your health is exceptionally important, but burnout makes it harder to maintain. It can be particularly difficult to overcome unhealthy behaviour because the symptoms of burnout encourages you to overlook your own needs. When you have absolutely no emotional desire to exercise and eat better, the best thing you can do is as little as possible. It's easy to say no to 30 minutes of exercise that requires a gym, but it's much harder to procrastinate when your daily exercise only takes 5-15 minutes and you can do it at home. We've previously outlined many ways you can get a complete workout with nothing but your body, so just pick a few exercises you like and do them for a short amount of time during the day. So long as you do some kind of exercise each day, you'll be improving your health little by little. Also, just move around as often as you can. A sedentary lifestyle is harmful to your health, but it can be overcome with regular movement each day.
Getting on a better diet will take a little more willpower, as you'll have to forgo a lot of the unhealthy foods you've used to eke out a little bit of joy in your burnt out life. Just like with the exercise, take it easy and work your way up slowly. Consider everything you like to eat on a regular basis and isolate the top five healthiest choices on that list. Concentrate on eating those more often and be diligent about portion control. This won't involve any dramatic changes in your diet, but will refocus what you already eat so you're eating healthier. When you're feeling up to it, start cooking more often. When you make the food, you have greater control over what's going into your body.
Finally, sleep better (and more if you need to). Burnout's primary symptom is long-term exhaustion, so you need to improve the quality of your sleep if you want things to get better. I found technology to be helpful when diagnosing my sleep problems and figuring out a better routine. If your sleep problems are more specific, however, check out these common solutions.
As previously mentioned, undoing burnout takes time. While you may start to feel better quickly, overriding your previous descent into exhaustion is a long-term process and you can't expect to fix it all in a snap. As you work your way back to feeling better, more energised, and generally happier with your work and personal lives, set both long and short term goals to help you remember that this is a process. Seeing yourself achieve these goals over time will help you know that progress is being made even when it feels like nothing is happening at all. Burnout is difficult to overcome, but you'll get there if you're dedicated.