Until recently I thought that “burnout” referred to times when work was really stressful, or when you had several weeks of long days and were feeling pushed to your limits with keeping up on your responsibilities. I’ve experienced both of those many times over the years, but what I have been experiencing the last few months is actually very different. I feel disconnected and disinterested, not just from work but from most of the people and things in my life. I have zero interest in any of the things I know I “should” be doing, and when I do try to power through them I come up short and feel like a further failure. Work is something I want nothing to do with a lot of the time, yet I can’t turn my brain off and stop thinking about all the things that are broken – going over and over again the frustrations I have and potential ways to fix them.
As the days and weeks went by I began to assume it was a bout of depression with the occasional anxiety mixed in for good measure. Last week while confiding in a friend via Voxer I even remember hearing the words coming out of my mouth and thinking, “Huh..I am describing a lot of the classic, ‘by the book’ symptoms of depression. That must be what it is.” In many ways that made sense, but I also felt like something wasn’t quite fitting that conclusion. Some moments are perfectly fine and others seem hopeless, at times I’m angry and beyond frustrated with everything and everyone, and although my work is usually the thing that consistently motivates and inspires me lately I have not wanted anything to do with it. I’ve been trying to add up all the pieces of the puzzle and figure out what on earth is going on (in my constant attempt to “fix” what I deem to be “broken”), but the other day something caused me to start investigating a slightly different angle. The thought of walking away from it all crossed my mind, and I immediately felt more free and optimistic than I have in a really long time. So that night, despite being exhausted from stumbling through a 12 hour work day, I started doing some research. “Mental health days” was my first search, and it led me to a great blog post by Hannah Gale. From there I came across articles mentioning the term “burnout”, which really started to get at the heart of what seems to be going on lately. Each definition seemed to be describing me to a T, and the more I read the more I identified with the signs that every article explained:
Burnout occurs when passionate, committed people become deeply disillusioned with a job or career from which they have previously derived much of their identity and meaning. It comes as the things that inspire passion and enthusiasm are stripped away, and tedious or unpleasant things crowd in – Mindtools
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place….Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.- Helpguide
I was definitely on the right track, but I still wanted to understand how burnout and depression were related and where the overlap exists. That led me to a study done a couple years ago, Is burnout a depressive disorder? A reexamination with special focus on atypical depression. Over 5,500 teachers were assessed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) and 9-item depression scale from the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9). Through this study they found that 90% of the teachers who were identified as burned out also met the criteria for being diagnosed with depression. I was able to find the PHQ-9 online and scored extremely high (answering almost all the questions as “nearly every day” or “every day”). The MBI was harder to find for free, but I did find a free Burnout Self Test (upon scoring my answers it said, “You are at very severe risk of burnout – do something about this urgently.” Ok then). Both burnout and depression look different for everyone, but I can see there is a lot of overlap and I’m certain that for me one triggers and simultaneously compounds the symptoms of the other.
I was particularly drawn to the idea of “being out of sync” in your life, which is how Psychology today defined burnout. They say it is, “the chronic state of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life” and a state of chronic stress that leads to: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Forbes also stated, “the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors…the two components that play into burnout: There are more demands and fewer resources.” I think for a long while, often without totally realizing it, I’ve been trying my best to keep up on everything and continue doing what needs to be done in the absence of anyone else who is doing it, and sometimes in the absence of really knowing exactly what the priorities are and what actually “needs” to be done.
Reflecting on the Specifics
Preventing Burnout nicely laid out many of the causes and symptoms of burnout. (For my own purposes of reflection I’ve italicized the ones that I definitely see as my own contributing factors and circumstances.)
Work-related causes of burnout
- Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
- Lack of recognition or rewards for good work
- Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
- Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging
- Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment
Lifestyle causes of burnout
- Working too much, without enough time for relaxing and socializing
- Being expected to be too many things to too many people
- Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others
- Not getting enough sleep
- Lack of close, supportive relationships (I wouldn’t say this is true per say, but I have been thinking a lot about my relationships and how I often don’t share everything with even those I consider to be my closest friends anymore.)
Personality traits can contribute to burnout
- Perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough
- Pessimistic view of yourself and the world
- The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others
- High-achieving, Type A personality
Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout
Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout
Ok, so what? This may seem like an awful lot of time spent reading, reflecting on, and choosing to publicly share information just to say, “Yup. I’m suffering from burnout. I’m also struggling with depression and, sometimes, anxiety. These are my symptoms and struggles right now.” But for me, that is the first step in figuring it all out. I’ve been running in circles and trying desperately to understand what is going on so I can dig myself out of this place that I would really like to not be in, so it is pretty helpful having something concrete to anchor my thinking and provide reassurance that I am not alone or at fault for the way I’ve been feeling.
As for why this is being shared in such an open space, I’m taking the leap and hitting “Publish” on this post instead of leaving it as a forever-draft (of which I have many from the past few years, specially on topics of mental health and my own personal struggles) in the hopes that the research and thinking I share will be helpful to someone else who may be struggling. For too long I’ve been encouraging others to share their voices and shed light on their realities without finding the strength to post my own. When others are brave enough to speak openly and honestly about their challenges with mental health it means a great deal to me and brings me comfort and hope, so I’ve got to start trusting that what I share will be well-received and those who know me (and those who don’t) will not think any differently of who I am when I open that window to some of the things I’ve kept behind closed doors for a very long time.
As I come to understand what is going on I also need to figure out what to do and how to help myself move forward in a productive way that gets me back to a place of happiness and fulfillment at work and in life. More on that to come, but for now I am starting here (again, italics denote the things I am focusing on first):
Coping with job burnout
- Clarify your job description. Ask your boss for an updated description of your job duties and responsibilities. Point out things you’re expected to do that are not part of your job description and gain a little leverage by showing that you’ve been putting in work over and above the parameters of your job.
- Actively address problems. Take a proactive rather than a passive approach to issues in your workplace, including stress at work. You’ll feel less helpless if you assert yourself and express your needs. If you don’t have the authority or resources to solve the problem, talk to a superior.
- Ask for new duties. If you’ve been doing the exact same work for a long time, ask to try something new: a different grade level, a different sales territory, a different machine.
- Take time off. If burnout seems inevitable, take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and take perspective.
Burnout recovery strategy #1: Slow down
When you’ve reached the end stage of burnout, adjusting your attitude or looking after your health isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to force yourself to slow down or take a break. Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.
Burnout recovery strategy #2: Get support
When you’re burned out, the natural tendency is to protect what little energy you have left by isolating yourself. But your friends and family are more important than ever during difficult times. Turn to your loved ones for support. Simply sharing your feelings with another person can relieve some of the stress. The other person doesn’t have to ret to “fix” your problems; he or she just has to be a good listener. Opening up won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most friends will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your friendship.
Burnout recovery strategy #3: Reevaluate your goals and priorities
Burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to change course accordingly.
Do you have a story of burnout, a resource that may be of help, or something else to share on the topic? Please share ay