You know that feeling when you’re running on empty and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to recharge? That’s ‘burnout’.
The term was first introduced in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger, a German-born American psychologist. He observed the occurrence of high-levels of stress in professions that have a basis in service. Chief amongst them, doctors and nurses, who would often end up being exhausted, listless, and unable to cope with a revolving door of difficult cases. Freudenberger concluded they were experiencing burnout. Four decades later, the Harvard Gazette reported that ‘doctor burnout’ costs health care systems $4.6 billion every single year, but burn out does not only affect doctors. In 2019, the World Health Organization started recognizing the condition as an "occupational phenomenon.” Today, more than a third of workers report feeling burned out some of the time, and nearly a quarter feel it very often or always.
Evidence also shows that when we're emotionally exhausted, our health suffers, and burnout has been linked to depression, memory loss, sleep problems, alcohol abuse, weakened immune systems, and cardiovascular disease. In the process, our job performance tends to suffer as well. We become less effective; we get less done and make more mistakes. Eventually, we may even start thinking about quitting. It’s a vicious and dangerous cycle that can affect every facet of our lives.
Identifying and Dealing with Burnout
Okay, so we know what burnout is. Now we have to find a way of identifying it before we cross the threshold, which can be surprisingly difficult to do. In the past 40 years, we’ve moved into a more globalized society in which time-zones have become blurrier, work hours have stretched longer, sleeping patterns are more erratic, and performance-evaluation has reached levels bordering on obsession. Not to mention the immediacy of dismal news on a minute-to-minute basis, which has only heightened the feeling that something is wrong at all times. We’ve started taking fewer breaks and neglecting our mental health needs. Plus, the recent pandemic has led exhaustion to set in due to a combination of the length of this crisis, the yo-yo of good news followed by bad news, and common everyday stressors. In fact, burnout numbers reportedly have grown significantly over the last year, cementing this ongoing issue even further.
As per Freudenberger, there are twelve stages of burnout. See if you relate to any of them:
- Excessive ambition
- Pushing yourself to work harder
- Neglecting your needs
- Blaming the world instead of recognizing you’re working too hard
- No time for non-work needs
- Becoming removed from your social circle
- Changes in behavior
- Feeling detached from the world around you
- Anxiety/feeling empty
- Mental and/or physical collapse
The bad news first: no one is immune to burnout. In fact, many are probably experiencing it right now and don’t even know it, likely coping by upping their caffeine intake.
Whether you recognize the signs or are past the breaking point, it’s important to have ‘The Three R’s’ in mind:
- Recognize - Know what the burnout symptoms are and recognize them when they happen.
- Reverse - Send the damage back by focusing on stress management and seeking outside support.
- Resilience - Prioritize your emotional and physical well-being.
Sometimes, the most difficult step is the first one: recognition. All it takes is a quick check-in with yourself. Take 10 minutes to do a self-evaluation and ask these questions:
Am I feeling emotionally and physically depleted? Am I overwhelmed and isolating myself from friends and family? Am I day-dreaming of going on a solo vacation? Am I more irritable? Am I sick more often than usual?
If the answer is yes to most of the above, you are probably experiencing burnout. Now, the good news: burnout isn’t a chronic condition. It’s an uphill battle. There’s a lot you can do about it, and we have a few suggestions on how to get started:
We know, nobody likes to hear this but manage stress. It seems like we’re never capable of actually doing it, which only increases frustration and ultimately leads us to neglect our well-being even further. But managing stress doesn’t have to be just breathing techniques (although they help quite a bit, and if you’d like to know more, please see these options).
Name Your Feelings
This exercise might feel a bit strange at first, but according to Harvard Business Review it’ll help you acknowledge how you’re feeling. This is what psychologists call labeling. This is important because it ties into the “recognition” step we talked about. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, for example, say it out loud. Sometimes, getting away from our intensely subjective perspective is all we need to take that first step.
Usually, when we’re overworked and overwhelmed, the first thing we put on the back burner is our own well-being. We tend to consider it expendable, but eventually it’ll catch up with us. It’s important to recognize your limits and don’t push beyond them. Nobody knows yourself better than you do, so if you know that you can only work two hours at a time, be true to yourself and do just that. Recharge and then get back to it. More than that, make sure you do something for yourself. As Tom & Donna taught us in the classic sitcom Parks & Recreation, ‘treat yo self’. What are the things that give you true pleasure? Dig deep into yourself and rediscover your passions, then re-incorporate them into your life.
Learn How to Say No
Saying no can be powerful and empowering. Several cases of burnout stem from the inability to turn things down. The truth is you can’t say yes to everyone and everything and do all of it well. When you take on too many things, you waste time, energy, and even money, in the process distracting yourself from what’s really important. If you’re someone who has trouble saying no, read this helpful Harvard Business Review solution, which focuses on three small steps: assessing the ask, delivering a well-reasoned no, and giving a yes that sets you up for success.
Manage Your Social Media & News Intake
As mentioned before, being attached to your phone can be emotionally draining. It’s crucial to be intentional in terms of how many hours you spend on social media and how much news you consume. We understand that we have to use our phones for work and to connect with other people, but remember that it’s easy to get pulled into a cycle of endless scrolling. A good solution is to set timers for each app and reminders to expand your activities behind the small screen.
Look at Work Differently
If quitting your job is not an option, start looking at it through a different lens. Try to find value in your work, even if it’s the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant thing. It can completely transform your mindset because it helps you regain control and, most importantly, helps you find purpose. Ultimately, you don't need huge accomplishments to feel good about your work. What matters are the small wins.
Yes, we know, you’ve heard this one before too. But trust us, it’s really important. When you’re experiencing burnout you’ll often have the desire to comfort yourself, and for a lot of people, an easy go-to is food. More specifically, comfort food. The problem is that when you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you need sustenance, which traditional ‘comfort food’ may not offer. Instead, try eating foods that are high in fiber, vegetables, and healthy fats. These will help regulate your blood sugar levels and also relieve depression and anxiety symptoms by promoting a healthy gut (for more on the gut-brain connection, check out this Johns Hopkins article). Also, make sure to include protein and magnesium in your diet, and seek out warm foods and drinks.
A well-proven winner, but it sounds counter-intuitive, right? If we’re depleted, how does exercising help us recover? The truth is, in the long run, exercising (especially cardiovascular exercise) calms our bodies and minds. Start by taking regular walks, once or twice a day. Create that habit and check-in with yourself after a couple of months. See how much that transformed your routine and your well-being. Not only are you benefiting from the act of exercising itself, but you’re also creating boundaries and establishing time in the day dedicated to your wellness. You’re prioritizing yourself.
Another effective way to manage stress is to take breaks. This one is very simple, but it works wonders. Set up an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up, stretch, drink water, and snack. Use this time to step out of the intensity of your job and allow your body to recover, even if for just a few minutes at a time.
Perform Acts of Services
According to Cedars-Sinai, performing an act of service can give you an instant shot of stress relief, pleasure, and happiness, and it doesn’t have to be a big thing. The key is to be meaningful and thoughtful. The organization Random Acts of Kindness has a ton of ideas to inspire you, like leaving a few quarters for a stranger at your local laundromat, praising a local business online, or taking the time out of your day to support a friend in one of their endeavors. This allows you to step outside your world and your problems with the goal of making someone else’s life better. Their smile and gratitude will do wonders for your mental and emotional health. It’ll also stimulate your drive and sense of purpose.
Burnout is an Organizational and Contagious Problem
We talked about nurses and doctors before, but burnout is an issue across all fields. Worse, it’s contagious. For example, studies have shown that when teachers are burned out, their students also show elevated levels of cortisol (a classic stress response). To counteract this growing issue, some organizations are offering mindfulness training. However, if you’re experiencing burnout, being mindful might help alleviate some of the symptoms, but it doesn’t address the root cause. It’s essential that companies start thinking about changing the structure of the job and the organizational culture that goes along with it.
Demand, Control, Support
- Reducing the demands of the job.
- Giving people more control to handle them.
- Providing more support to help people cope.
For a lot of workers, one of the most frustrating job demands is their inbox. Studies show that the volume of emails sent and received can lead to emotional exhaustion if email isn’t a key to getting the job done. When this is the case, workers will feel burdened and trapped by it, which can lead to overwhelming pressure and a compulsion to read and respond to a full inbox, even though it doesn’t move the needle on what they’re actually supposed to be doing. Some researchers can even predict burnout by simply analyzing email patterns. Suffice to say, that’s a terrifying reality.
The Cleveland Clinical Case
The Cleveland Clinic was able to completely revamp its staff’s mental health by training 40,000 caregivers in empathy. Yes, empathy! Learning how to be more empathetic helped nurses and doctors gain a sense of control. Instead of having stressful, frustrating patient interactions, and feeling like the solution is out of their hands, they were taught to express concern in a way the patient feels cared for and satisfied. In other words, the staff is reconnecting with the idea of expressing intention of care.
Our Philosophy at Evercast
“Evercast supports an empowerment culture with unlimited PTO. This provides greater flexibility and freedom. The ability to take time off when people feel they need it is a relief valve in a fast-paced, high-growth technology company. This approach to culture and policy nurtures the opportunity to embrace a degree of work/life balance.”
That’s a quote from our CEO, Alex Cyrell, who seeps this mentality into our work environment. He understands that Evercast workers depend upon self-reliance and self-motivation, which can present challenges for remote work that at times can feel confining and isolating. That’s why the company is “focusing on the need for ever-improving strong and continuous communication.” Alex believes everyone “must work extra hard at it in the absence of face-to-face human contact.” This is essential to avoid some of the pitfalls of burnout, an issue Alex is very aware of and actively fights. “One way I address it is to reach out to people, let them know I want to hear their concerns and I listen. Acting on the platitude and cliché, “My door is always open” is a meaningful way to build cohesion in a company and so worth the time to me. The opportunity for company leadership to really connect with people and the value it brings gets lost in the majority of companies.”
Of course, one way to address burnout is to encourage physical, face-to-face interaction, something that can feel somewhat paradoxical for Evercast since the platform provides the best work experience for people who are not in the same physical space. But that doesn’t mean both can’t co-exist, and that’s what Alex is gearing towards. “As our world opens back up, we intend to facilitate bringing our geographically dispersed team together to spend time hanging out, getting to know one another, and actually getting some work done side-by-side.”
Change Happens Slowly, but You Have the Power
Even though the pandemic cast a spotlight on burnout issues, there’s still a stigma associated with it, especially in the U.S. While you can go on sick leave for burnout in Sweden and other countries, that’s almost impossible in the States because the condition is not yet recognized by the DSM-5. This indicates we might not see a change at a state or federal level any time soon. But change can still happen incrementally at an organizational level, and it should. If burnout is contagious, so is establishing the tools that help prevent it.
Take it from us here at Evercast. Burnout is a real problem, but it doesn’t have to be.