burning wood, symbolising burnout

Burnout – Care Factor, Zero

- Photography by Alan Johnston

What is burnout?

In the world of cars, a burnout is the practice of keeping a vehicle stationary and spinning its wheels, causing the tires to heat up and smoke due to friction. This is pretty much how burnout in a person can feel too.

Burnout is defined as:

  1. the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.
  2. the failure of an electrical device or component through overheating.

“an anti-stall mechanism prevents motor burnout”

  1. physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

“high levels of professionalism which may result in burnout”

The theme is clear: you keep doing too much until there is nothing left. And when you try too hard for too long, you can deplete yourself to the point where you feel you can do no more and you couldn’t care less.

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

When you are suffering from burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. But this doesn’t happen suddenly or ‘out of the blue’. You don’t wake up one morning and just “have burnout.”. It creeps up on us, making it harder to recognise. Still, our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can see it coming and take steps to deal with it.(1)

Burnout is one of those road hazards in life that we really should be keeping an eye out for, but sadly – often because of our “I can do everything” personalities – we rarely see it coming. Because we care deeply about what we do, we tend to ignore the fact that we’re working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy work loads, and putting enormous pressure on ourselves to excel—all of which make us at risk of burnout.

Are you on the road to burnout?

You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated. (2)

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

Most of us have days when we feel helpless, overwhelmed, or unappreciated—when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may have burnout.

Burnout is a gradual process. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first, but they get worse as time goes on. Think of the early symptoms as a warning light, like in your car, that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and take action to reduce your stress, as with having your car checked and serviced, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out, and won’t be able to get to work at all.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Getting sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches or aches and pains
  • Change in appetite or sleeping habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioural signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, alcohol or drugs to try and cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early (2)

What is the difference between stress and burnout?

Burnout may be the result of relentless stress, but it is not the same as too much stress.

Stress is about too much: too much work and too many pressures that demand too much of you. You still feel though that if you can get everything under control, you will feel better.

Burnout is about not enough: feeling empty, devoid of motivation and beyond caring. You don’t always notice it when it happens, and when it does, you don’t see any hope of change for the better, which is a dangerous situation to find yourself in, as you may start looking for unhealthy ways out.

Stress vs. Burnout
Stress Burnout
Characterized by over-engagement Characterized by disengagement
Emotions are over-reactive Emotions are blunted
Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces helplessness and hopelessness
Loss of energy Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope
Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
May kill you prematurely May make life seem not worth living(2)

What are the causes of burnout?

Burnout is often work related, but that work can be anything, from a high-pressure professional job to a high-pressure, stay-at-home mum job. Your lifestyle and personality traits can also contribute to burnout. What you do in your ‘spare’ time and how you see yourself and the world can play as big a part as the demands of your job.

Work-related causes of burnout

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Lack of recognition or reward for good work
  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
  • Work that is monotonous or unchallenging
  • Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment

Lifestyle causes of burnout

  • Working too much, without enough time for resting or playing
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships
  • Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others
  • Not getting enough sleep

The way you are can contribute to burnout

  • Having perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough
  • A pessimistic view of yourself and the world
  • The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others
  • High-achieving, ‘Type A’ personality

Does any of this sound familiar? Whether you are on the road to burnout or feel you are already at the end of the line, trying to push through the exhaustion and carry on in the way that got you there, will only cause you further harm.

How do you deal with burnout?

Connection with people is the key. Connect with yourself and what truly makes you joyful. Connect with other people. Don’t struggle on in isolation. Don’t try to go it alone.

Open up to friends, partners, loved ones, co-workers. If there is no-one you feel you can be  yourself with, seek out the support of a trained professional such as a counsellor or psychologist or your GP. Just share how you are feeling – “a burden shared is a burden halved” as the saying goes. Sometimes when shared out loud, the problems that seemed insurmountable in our heads don’t seem so hard to deal with.

As much as possible, leave work at work and make space in your day for loved ones and activities you enjoy. If you don’t have anyone to share your life with, consider making friends with co-workers or joining community groups to build friendships and expand your social network. If you feel like this is too much to take on, just being friendly at work in your everyday interactions – taking a moment to appreciate someone or smile –  can make a difference to your day, and theirs.

Reconsider the way you look at work

Before you quit your job, see if there is another way to look at it.

Is it something you went into because you loved it? Or did you take it just to pay the bills? Either way, appreciate what it offers you and make the most of it while you are there. Make it about the people at work, rather than focussing on what is wrong with the system. Connect with people, make friends at work if you can, and this will support you and others. Chances are that if you are struggling, others are too, and opening up and being honest about how you are feeling gives others a chance to share their true feelings too.

See that you are providing a service, no matter what you are doing, and that your job is worthwhile, that you are worthwhile.

If you really are not coping, take some time off to rest and re-evaluate your life. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.

Re-evaluate yourself and what you truly care about

Burnout is a sign that your life as it is set up is not working for you. Take time to consider who you truly are, what you really care about, and how you really want to spend the majority of your waking hours.

Care for yourself, deeply

If you do take time off, use that time to rest and recharge your batteries. Keep life simple. Go to bed early, eat fresh clean food, exercise gently and regularly, and do things you love doing, all of which will increase your energy and improve your outlook on life.

Take time to connect deeply with who you are, what you love to do, and make space for more of that. Learn to say “no” to people and things that don’t support you, and this will make more space for people and things you love.

Exercise is vital in helping you come back. Gentle rhythmic exercise like walking and swimming, helps bring you back into your body and redevelop your connection with it. While you do it, focus on your body, on the movement of your arms and legs and on your breath, rather than letting your thoughts run away with you.

Food is also important. What you put into your body affects how you feel. High sugar, high carb foods may give you a quick fix of energy, but you come crashing down soon after, and this leads to swings of moods and energy.

Alcohol does not help. You may think it does, in the short term, but it comes at a price. It is loaded with sugar, which interferes with you seeking out healthy food, rather settling for a quick fix of carbs to fill you. Alcohol interferes with REM sleep, which helps us process the events and feelings of the day, and can aggravate feelings of depression. It can also make us feel even more irritable with other people, which gets in the way of our connection, and can make us feel more anxious and incapable.

Sleep will come naturally if you take deep care of yourself during the day, and after a good night’s sleep (or several) you will feel brighter, and things will start to look up.

There is light at the end of the burnout tunnel…as long as you travel it in a loving, caring way, and take care of the vehicle you are travelling in…your own body.

1.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them

  1. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm


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