As 2012 draws to a close, it’s natural to start turning our minds to the events of the past year – what we’ve achieved, how things have changed, significant occurrences, how we feel about the passing of time and the imminent approach of 2013.
It’s often at moments like these we reflect on the broad categories of our lives – relationship, job, health, family – and identify what’s working well and what’s not. In the spirit of such enquiry, this post we’re focusing on burnout, a condition gaining momentum in the public mind, and one which our therapists are increasingly encountering at 96 Harley Psychotherapy.
Which begs the question – what is burnout? Well, you’ll find various definitions, but basically it’s a state of depletion and exhaustion, caused by excessive and sustained stress in a particular role. It’s important here to distinguish what stress is too, since stress comes in many forms and is highly dependent upon individual factors. So while one individual might experience stress by being in work that is inconsistent with his or her values, another might experience it as a consequence of not being appreciated in an assigned role. Burnout is often associated with continued frustration and the perception (either real or imagined) that nothing will ever change, and that the situation is somehow hopeless.
Some of the symptoms of burnout include loss of motivation, a feeling of little or no control over work (or the area in question), a sense of helplessness, disengagement, isolation and a feeling that there is no worthwhile future. If that sounds like depression, you’re right – burnout is a kind of depression, and one for which, thankfully, a cause can be traced. Unlike stress, which we think of as a reaction to real-time pressure, burnout is a gradual process that occurs in response to pressure – physical, emotional and spiritual – over an extended period of time. With each small internal experience of ‘this isn’t working for me’ (combined with failure to address it) the momentum builds. Once it reaches the critical stage, there is no turning back.
Early warning signs of burnout include:
· Physical tiredness – feeling tired a lot of the time, but especially when undertaking the role in question
· Loss of motivation – where once the role may have inspired, now there is a heaviness associated with it and resistance to doing it
· A decreased sense of satisfaction – and a diminished feeling of accomplishment when undertaking the role
· Increased negative thinking – in particular, self-criticism and creeping despair about the future
· Loss of concentration – where once the job was relatively easy, it is no longer taken in one’s stride, but associated with procrastination and inefficiency
By intervening on these symptoms, it is possible to ‘turn the ship round’, which many people do. But sometimes, the reality is, it's too late. This ‘too lateness’ can sometimes be absolutely necessary to break the pattern of passivity, the continued unwillingness to listen to the internal voice, now grown hoarse from repetition. Sometimes we are forced to stop, because of physical, mental or emotional breakdown. We literally have to step aside.
When this happens, there are many positive actions you can take. The first is to commit to taking time out, telling yourself that you have now reached breaking point and you are going to give yourself time to recover. It will be necessary to limit the number of activities you undertake and to rest a great deal.
The second is to get support, perhaps from a counsellor and/or, if possible, from others who have experienced burnout. The tendency with burnout, because of depleted energy reserves is to isolate. While it is necessary to cut back on the activities you have been doing which led to the burnout, some activities will be supportive, such as reaching out to others. Talking to the right people about whatever it was that made you believe you had to keep going at all costs will be vital too.
When you are in this surrendered state and beginning to process some of the feelings associated with breaking down, a time will come when you will need to address what it is that isn’t working in your life and consider taking actions that are more consistent with your aspirations and aptitudes. At this point many discover the great gift of burnout – and begin to see it as a necessary development for getting on track with our true life purpose.
Sometimes burnout will be a signal that you need to change jobs or change career altogether. Sometimes it will be the catalyst for changing the way you do what you do and having you realise that, actually, you are on track. No matter what, the forced life appraisal that comes about as a result of burnout can be a major turning point and the beginning of a remarkable new phase of growth and productivity.
If you think you may be affected by burnout and would like to speak in confidence to one of our therapists, please browse our therapists section (details here) or, if you would prefer, contact the practice manager (details here) who may be able to point you in the right direction.
Written by Jacqui Hogan