Raise your hand if you’re burnt out.
Burnout is the result of prolonged exposure to chronic demands and stressors. While it is most frequently associated with work, it can also result from other roles in life, such as being a caregiver. And now, after over a year of a pandemic with new, long-term stressors, on top of our existing extreme-stress culture, nearly everyone has had their own personal experience with it.
What is burnout?
While we typically think of burnout as solely characterized by extreme fatigue, the leading research has identified that it actually has three unique components:
Experiencing burnout can lead to multiple physical problems, such as fatigue, headaches, issues sleeping, and even more serious health conditions. We also know from many studies that chronic stress, which often overlaps with burnout from work and other challenges in our lives, is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, too. Psychologically, burnout can lead to depression, anxiety, extreme distress. Individuals in caregiving professions, like doctors and nurses, have dramatically higher rates of suicide than the general public.
In today’s article, we’ll be covering the science of burnout. You’ll discover that while burnout is a social phenomenon in part driven by our Old Happy culture, there are still things that you can do to help address it, both for yourself, and for others — because we need you to be well and strong to help transform the world for the better.
Burnout & Old Happy culture
One of the core root causes of our pre-pandemic burnout is what we call Old Happy culture.
This is our cultural, societal conditioning that has told us that happiness comes from achieving success, and that in order to achieve success, we need to work harder and harder and harder. We justify this intense pace to ourselves by saying, “Once I get that promotion, I’ll be happy, and I can rest, and slow down, and take care of myself.”
Unfortunately, whenever we do get there, we find ourselves dissatisfied. That’s because achieving societally-defined extrinsic success milestones does not make us lastingly happy. So we hop back onto the success treadmill, setting our sights on the next thing. We push ourselves even more and even harder. We never, ever stop, because we desperately want to be happy, and we know that happiness is just a few more late nights away from us.
As we neglect our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our peace, and our true dreams in the pursuit of Old Happy, we put ourselves at greater and greater risk of burnout. Old Happy culture is so pervasive that we even justify taking care of those things as something that makes us more productive: our cultural belief that productivity is the highest good is ingrained so deeply within us.
Old Happy culture has not gone away, but we’ve added a pandemic on top of it. This has exacerbated many of the demands and added new stressors (such as working from home with children, economic crisis, increased pressure to maintain performance in an uncertain economy, the loss of many of our positive routines and social support, fear of contracting the virus and worry for loved ones, and so on. ) It has also eliminated many of our positive stress coping mechanisms, like hobbies, travel, time with friends and family, and even having buffers from work like commutes and space from the office.
Finally, burnout is also exacerbated by social justice issues — living in unfair, unsafe societies, which is the reality for many in the BIPOC community, exacerbates stress and amplifies the risk of burnout.
Burnout is a demand problem
Here’s what you need to know: if you’re burnt out, it is not your fault.
The leading researcher in burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach, says it best: “The bottom line on burnout is that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness.”
Think about burnout as being the result of having two dimensions: demands and resources. Burnout happens when the demands of a specific situation are too high for too long — your environment or situation is overpowering you and any resources that you have.
While you can increase your resources to help to cope with the environmental situation, that likely will not be sustainable in the long run without making reductions at the demand level.
Many of us can push through an espeically busy month or two at work with tough deadlines because we know that there is a slightly slower paced schedule in sight. But when there is no end in sight, no sign of the environmental changes, or no signs of support from your leadership team, your resources will eventually become depleted by those ongoing demands.
Burnout warning signs
For this reason, it’s important to learn to spot our burnout warning signs. Burnout is individualized based on our selves, our work and home environments, the communities we are a part of, and a multitude of other factors.
Consider how you are feeling on each of the three dimensions of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. It can be helpful to look at your emotions and behaviors in each of those areas.
Do you feel tired and fatigued? Are you struggling to do the things that you need to do to take care of yourself?
Are you feeling inadequate or like you can’t get anything done?
Do you feel negative about your work or your purpose? Are people frustrating you or upsetting you more than usual?
To address burnout, consider how you can either decrease your demands or increases your resources. You will also want to take into account your experience of the three elements of burnouts and which is affecting you most strongly at this moment. For example, high exhaustion burnout might require more self-care; high cynicism burnout might require connecting to a purpose or to people; high ineffectiveness burnout might require breaking big tasks into small, achievable wins.
Decreasing your demands
Many of us have burdened ourselves with extraordinary personal expectations for what we should do every single day. If you are worried that you might be experiencing burnout, it’s time to release yourself from those should’s. What can you let go of right now? (Just because you let go of it doesn’t mean you can never pick it back up!)
Schedule time with your manager at work and discuss what is on your plate. If it is safe to do so, have an honest conversation about how you are feeling. What projects are work are not the priority? Where can you decline unnecessary tasks (like side projects or ‘nice-to-do’s’?) How can your manager better support you?
Take a break. If you haven’t taken your vacation days, schedule them right away. Consider exploring short-term leaves of absence if necessary.
If your workplace is a burnout pressure-cooker, as so many are, eventually, you will likely need to explore taking your precious talents and gifts elsewhere. Remember: the environment is not likely to change anytime soon, no matter how hard you work. You are valuable, special, and you deserve a workplace that sees and supports you for who you are.
Increasing your resources
Increasing your resources asks us to take a look at our psychological, social, and economic resources to identify, what can I do differently to make this situation more manageable for myself?
Make rest a non-negotiable. While this can involve tough tradeoffs, it is essential for you to cope with the situation you’re in. Can you fit in small moments of rest throughout your day?
Reach out and ask for help. It can sometimes feel like just one more thing you have to do that you do not have the energy for. But spending ten minutes considering, “Where could someone in my community lean in to support me?” could pay off in tens or hundreds of hours of effort down the line.
Ensure that you are being a good friend to yourself. Be honest with yourself: where are you subconsciously holding on to Old Happy burnout beliefs, and how can you release them? With awareness, we can start to unwind the myths in our own lives: every time that we catch ourselves pushing ourselves too hard, saying yes to too many things, breaking boundaries, or deprioritizing what we need, and we hold firm, we are taking a radical step against Old Happy culture.
Reconnect to a purpose. How can you keep top of mind why you are doing what you are doing? Focusing on the beneficiaries of our work can help us to regain a sense of fulfilment and motivation.
Define the self-care habits that you need to stay strong. Then, hold yourself accountable for them. Often, we neglect them because we feel like we don’t have enough time — however, that is often a sign that we need to do them more than ever!
If you’re a leader, what can you do?
If you are a leader, you have an absolute responsibility to create an anti-burnout culture. If your team is burnt out, it is not their fault — it’s your job to help fix it.
A study from Gallup found the top five reasons for burnout are:
Unfair treatment at work
Lack of role clarity
Lack of communication and support from their manager
Unreasonable time pressure
Maslach’s research found that there are six factors that make a workplace prone to burnout:
Lack of control
Socially toxic workplace
Lack of fairness
Take a look at these lists, and try to grade yourself on each of the dimensions. Be careful not to solely base it on your experience of the workplace, but to consider what it is like for your employees (taking into account who they are, their roles, their lives and experiences outside of work.)
Once you’ve graded yourself, challenge yourself to implement systematic changes that will help you to improve each area. In what ways can you help your employees to increase their resources and decrease their demands? Adjusting deliverables, removing ‘nice-to-do’s from their list, canceling meetings, re-prioritizing or cutting projects, advocating for what they need to your boss — these are all things that you can and should be doing.
We’re well overdue on building a work culture that doesn’t promote burnout. With increased awareness about what contributes to it and clarity on our responsibilities as well as the responsibilities of our institutions, we can start to take meaningful action to improve work for everyone.
Previously Published on The New Happy