Stress is a constant in our lives. Accumulate too much of it over a prolonged period of time, add in a dash of feeling powerless and you’re likely to experience burnout – a state of mental, emotional and sometimes physical exhaustion. Burnout can feel like waves of lethargy, cynicism and hopelessness crashing upon the shore that is your mind. Chances are if you’ve ever worked on a series of projects with shifting goalposts in an under resourced department whilst on a tight timeline, you probably know how it feels.
The key to managing burnout is to anticipate its triggers and know what to do to ensure you can walk through the fire, instead of letting it consume you.
However, it’s not just project specialists that are susceptible to burnout. In fact, mental health professionals admit that it’s likely many people will experience it at some point in their lives. That doesn’t have to mean that a bout of burnout will tank your career, or that you are doomed to a life of apathy. The key to managing burnout is to anticipate its triggers and know what to do to ensure you can walk through the fire, instead of letting it consume you.
Burnout strikes some more than others
Does empathy cause it? Sure, it can be a contributing factor, but that doesn’t mean you should stop caring for people or trying to see things from other’s perspectives. And things don’t have to be ‘going bad’ to create the right environment for burnout, as sometimes too much of a good thing can be just as disempowering. Prolonged success can lead you to commit sustained focus on an area of business whilst simultaneously ignoring others that are in need of TLC.
Often by avoiding your problems (when in a bout of burnout) you simply add fuel to the fire by neglecting it, ironically causing more stress when you return from your stress induced mental sabbatical.
There’s not one magic job type that is immune, or a list of burnout-proof industries, especially when the risk factors are common to all, due in part to the mediating effect of one’s environment. And if you could somehow micromanage your immediate surroundings, a lack of sufficient resources and an inability to cope with unforeseen stressors can mitigate even the best laid plans. And besides, how can you control for life itself? Situations and goals change by the year and job, a difficult enough task to stay on top of without factoring in our rapidly changing world, the ultimate catalyst.
It’s not about doing nothing
They say you should take a rest when burnout strikes, that the best medicine is to simply take a beat and regroup. But what if that isn’t an option? Sometimes walking away from a project may put you in an even worse position, or harm your friends, family or fellow colleagues. And besides, there’s no guarantee that doing nothing will save the day. Often by avoiding your problems (when in a bout of burnout) you simply add fuel to the fire by neglecting it, ironically causing more stress when you return from your stress induced mental sabbatical.
The answer isn’t found in the opposite course of action either. Choosing to ‘suck it up’ and ‘plough ahead’ will ultimately serve to work against your best interests, as you can only call upon what energy remains in the tank. Meaning, it’s the equivalent of putting your foot on the accelerator in the hopes of reaching the nearest fuel station, when you are just barely running on fumes to begin with.
So, what then? Burnout is unavoidable, one may say inevitable, but that doesn’t have to mean you are trapped with no safety plan. There is a path around the wall and over to the other side, one that involves thinking differently.
Change is as good as a holiday
Stress is just one of many constants in life. Two equally, if not more powerful forces are that of change and growth. Interestingly enough, both are adaptations to stress itself, and they occur all throughout the natural world, on so many levels. You only have to look around to see proof of this in action. Muscles growing when placed under progressive overload, trees responding to the passing seasons, our immune systems strengthening when fighting disease or a child learning how to walk. There is stress, there is change and there is growth – in that order.
Doubling down or avoiding the problem are extreme ends of an illusory spectrum that ultimately won’t serve you.
Burnout means you’ve arrived at the stress phase. Doubling down or avoiding the problem are extreme ends of an illusory spectrum that ultimately won’t serve you. It’s time to employ some change, which is the conduit growth. But before we get to the final phase, you might be asking, just what can I do to change the situation?
Good question, wrong approach.
If you’ve gotten this far along the path to burnout, it’s likely you’re unable to change what is going on, and have probably exhausted all the options you can think of. The clue is in the word itself – exhaustion (what you are feeling). The penny drop moment is when you realise that you yourself, is what needs to change. And there are myriad levers that you can pull to enact this change. It could be something as simple as moving to a new location, working outside, taking a shower, shifting your schedule around, randomly deciding to wear a baseball cap or saying something nice to someone who previously wasn’t on your radar in this moment. And if that all seems a bit too extreme right now, maybe just kick off your shoes.
The point is, if there was something that you would love to do right now, but feel like it’s not a priority, then perhaps now is the time to do it. Evoke change through change.
These are all subtle shifts that can help expand your perspective and change your mode of thinking. This is important for several reasons. Importantly, they are all activities that you can actually control – a fact that runs counter to the burnout risk factor of feeling powerless. They engender new ways of thinking by helping to get you out of your stress-induced comfort zone, that place you’ve ended up at wherein you think you know every answer. Yes, even stress can be comfy.
But above everything else, these tiny changes invite the opportunity for you to consider your temporary plight in a new light by shaking you out of your malaise, if only for a brief moment. Seize on that feeling, and ask yourself some honest questions, including, what could I be doing right now to help myself get through this? What led me here, and how can I avoid these events occurring in future? Tap into the energy of the novel situation your slight shift in perspective has prompted and see what other perspectives you could adopt.
Change is the circuit breaker that can lead you out of burnout and back into the fire of life.