What is Burnout?

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time. (Mental Health UK)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) define burnout as a syndrome, not a medical condition or mental disorder. They report that it is caused by ‘chronic, work-related stress that has not been successfully managed.’

Short periods of stress, that are resolved, like working towards a project deadline, do not lead to burnout.

In 2019 WHO recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterised by 3 things:

1) feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion

2) negative feelings towards or distance from one’s job

3) reduced efficiency in the role.

They do not recognise it in other circumstances outside of a job role.

I prefer to consider burnout from a more holistic perspective. It may be triggered by a work environment, but I feel that our lives are not conveniently divided into parts that do not overlap. Unresolved stress in one area of life is going to have an impact on other areas. We do not switch off our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours from one role to another, as they are core to who and how we are in the world. I’ve never known exhaustion or energy depletion to be occurring in only one area of my life.

I prefer the simple definition that ‘burnout is a result of unresolved stress over a longer period’.

It may be that events or circumstances in life ‘outside work’ add stress and pressure which are the trigger for burnout and make you feel less able to do your job, feel more exhausted or more negative. Whichever way it happens, I feel the full human experience needs to be taken into account.

I’ll go even deeper here. I think our modern, Western lifestyles set us up for burnout. The mindset of our society is that hard work is virtuous. We are praised for working long hours. We are seen as successful for ‘achieving’ promotions that earn us more money. We are primed to believe that if we can’t keep up then it’s our fault and that there is something wrong with us. Our self-worth is tied up with how hard we can work and how much we can ‘achieve’. We are filled with shame at the thought of not being able to keep up.

It’s not just a workplace issue: Modern life burns us out.

 

How do I recognise if have burnout?

There are several common signs of burnout:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed

(Mental Health UK)

In addition to the above, you may feel a sense of dread about work, feel angry and irritable frequently, and for those of us working in helping professions (such as doctors, nurses, social workers etc) you may notice that your compassion towards those in your care is decreased. You may feel like you can no longer do your job effectively (or manage to parent, relate to others, or do your other general tasks well).

I noticed the following physical, emotional and mental symptoms during my periods of burnout:

Can’t get to sleep; can’t wake up; constant low energy & always tired; use of caffeine and carb heavy food for a ‘boost’; tightness in my chest; developed asthma (and needed steroids); developed multiple sensitivities to foods, dust, pollen, cleaning products and toiletries; poor digestion; frequent colds; increased weight (using food to numb and soothe) and then serious longer-term fatigue including exhaustion after just a few minutes of any task. Feeling tearful; feeling empty; wanting to be alone; feeling worthless; comparison and self-blame; feeling anxious; constant low mood & feeling depressed and numb; avoidant and unable to cope with any responsibilities; brain fog; lack of focus; inability to concentrate.

After recovery from burnout, all of these symptoms have been reversed. However, I find I need to be vigilant and pace myself as I can now return more quickly to a burnt-out state. I’ve needed to slow down and tune into my body as an ongoing practice.

 

Can I recover from burnout?

In short, yes.

I want to give you reassurance that it is possible to fully recover. Many, many people fully recover.

It’s also worth noting that burnout does not heal itself.

You will need to consider making changes in your life! It’s important to recognise you are burnt out, and to identify the triggers and what maintains that level of stress in your life. Think about what changes you may need to make at work or at home to support you to resolve the ongoing stressors. Ask for support from friends, family and professionals.

I have recovered from at least three periods of burnout. I was lucky enough to get good help each time. My friends and family were supportive in practical and emotional ways. In one workplace, I was offered psychological support, and in another I had my hours reduced temporarily. During my worst burnout, where I was significantly physically impacted, I found my GP invaluable. They were reassuring and advised how to talk to my employer. I was sent to a gentle Pilates class and to a psychologist to support the psychological and physical symptoms. I was advised above all else to be kind to myself and that I was not to blame.

On all three of those occasions, as soon as I pinpointed my main trigger (for me it was always a toxic job environment), and began to make adjustments, I immediately started to recover. Recovery took time but the release of pressure and the ‘stuckness’ lifted almost instantly. It felt like magic! I was released from whatever reason my mind had told me I had to stay put in my situation and learn to cope, and then I was free to do things differently.

 

How do I recover from burnout?

  1. Understand what burnout is. Recognise your symptoms.

Education and self-awareness are key. It’s the starting point. I did not understand that I had something called burnout. I felt I was stressed because of my job, and it caused me lots of issues such as depression, anxiety, lack of motivation (I thought maybe I was lazy) and then later physical issues such as fatigue and brain fog. I blamed myself for not being able to cope. I compared myself to others, imagining that they were all fine and could cope with the stresses I was unable to.

Recognition that you are experiencing burnout, which is extremely common, leads to the next step.

  1. Decide to make changes.

Understand that it isn’t your fault, but that it is your responsibility to make the changes you need. If you don’t do anything differently, your situation will not change. The decision and determination to change is generally enough to provide motivation to make the changes.

Start small if you need to. Over time, small changes add up.

Start big if you need to. Walk away from the main stressor (job, relationship, career path) if you’re able to do so.

It’s likely that you need to make some practical changes – slowing down, working less hours, giving up certain roles, resting more. When you have created more space, it is also important to make changes to your mindset and belief systems. Ask yourself why you ended up in that position? What beliefs kept you there for so long?

  1. Learn to tune into your body.

Work on your self-awareness. This is such a key point!

It helps to have more space. If you’ve been able to slow down, rest more and take on less responsibility, you will create more space in your life.

Can you use this time to understand yourself more? Working on mindset, belief systems and behaviour patterns is great, but it takes time. I recommend starting with the basics by learning to tune into your body.

All our thoughts, emotional patterns, behaviours and conditioning can be accessed through the body, but our attention is generally stuck up in our heads or even completely outside our bodies. We are not just a brain. Our entire holistic bodily system is important. Our bodies do not lie to us, but if we are not tuned in we often miss the messages telling us what we need. So then, the messages get more intense (see burnout symptoms above).

Learning to tune in to the body more often can help us pick up messages earlier and take different actions.  Do we need more sleep, more or less food, some rest, some exercise? We can learn what it is we need and what actions we need to take to meet those needs. This is so helpful in recovering from burnout, and also preventing relapses.

One of the potential pitfalls is that in creating more space, you allow space for all the stuff that’s being surpressed to arise. Our bodies are very clever. When you create the right environment, all the things that need to be healed can appear! That is when the next step is important.

  1. Ask for support

Prioritise yourself. At any point in the process, ask for support from your friends, family, workplace, GP. Get therapeutic or coaching support if you feel it will help you.

 

How does embodiment coaching help with burnout recovery?

You learn self-awareness, recognition and then the tools to do things differently.

We are more than just a ‘brain taxi’ (Francis Briers, Embodiment Teacher).

Our bodies never lie, unlike our slippery minds.

We can learn to connect into our body and listen to what it’s trying to tell us.

Burnout doesn’t heal itself.

It takes self-awareness of your particular thought-patterns, your habits and behaviours in order to learn you can change them.

Support from a coach can allow you to feel safe to change and can help you see the blocks about yourself you’ve not been able to see alone. It can hold you accountable and keep you motivated.

Developing a toolkit of techniques that you practice gives you the skills to change your patterns. You can choose to do your life differently.

Listening to your body becomes a lifelong skill that supports you and prevents relapse.

 

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. If you have any questions about the material here or about burnout in general, please get in touch. I am an embodiment coach supporting heart-centred people to recover from burnout and prevent relapse. I run short, free sessions on Thursday, 8pm UK time to practice tools that help you manage stress.

I look forward to working with you soon,

Ruth

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