Welcome to the Culture of Burnout

21 January, 2021

“I want to curl up in the corner and cry” – says to me one of the strongest women I know. She is a gorgeous looking lady with a beautiful family, fascinating career and a very positive outlook. Normally, our conversations end up in giggles no matter what’s the problem. Not this time… She is absolutely exhausted, yet you could never tell because she holds herself as if she was a Wonder Woman (actually, she is one but they are not immune to burnouts too!).

The study into Google’s search data revealed a 24% spike in 2020 in searches online for terms such as ‘signs of burnout’, compared to 2019. Experts believe that this month (January 2021) we will see a record high burnout spike due to COVID-19.

According to the survey, initiated by The Office Group in September 2020, among millennials, the top three causes of burnout are working longer hours (59%), inability to separate work and personal life (42%) and an uncertain job market (33%). Among workers 50 and older, 48% reported not being able to take “a proper break” since the beginning of lockdown.

Why are the statistics so important? They show exactly where we stand as a society. Living in survival became part of the norm. We think it’s normal because the majority of the people we know are feeling the same. We must understand the implications of living in this ‘norm’ and be proactive about our own wellbeing rather than just wait for the circumstances to change.

When we are stressed, our body is in a ‘fight or flight’ mode: all the blood pumped into arms and legs, all the non-essential for survival systems (such as metabolism, tissue repair, reproduction) are suppressed and operating at a minimum capacity. In other words, our body is deprived of its natural ability to heal and repair, to absorb nutrients, to rest. Furthermore, we are not resourceful or creative. Although, adrenalin running through our bodies may be giving us quite the opposite impression by keeping us alert and active. Remember, it is the quality of work done that truly matters, not the quantity. In survival, we tend to make mistakes.

Human body can sustain short periods of stress, however, prolonged stress can literally kill us. The essential thing to understand is that the most of the madness is in our head, stress is mostly self-induced. Imagine an antelope, it is peacefully grazing on the grass when it sees a predator. Immediately animal’s survival instinct kicks in and it starts running for its life. Once the predator is outrun, the antelope stops and starts peacefully grazing on the grass again. Antelope, quite opposite to us, humans, stays in survival mode only for as long as there is a real danger to its life. We, humans, are able to activate body’s stress response by thought alone. Our brain doesn’t make a distinction between a perceived danger (a fear of missing a deadline) and a life-threatening danger (a stranger with a knife coming towards us).

Let’s get back to burnout.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. We might be feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, lacking in motivation, negative or unable to concentrate. Our work performance might have dropped, the quality of the interpersonal relationship diminished, bad habits creeped in (comforting ourselves with alcohol at the end of the working day, eating junk, smoking etc.) or we actually might have physical health problems.

How to get out of this ‘culture’?

Set relaxation time and treat it like a meeting with a very important client. Put it in your diary.

Unplug. Technology enables work stress to creep into our relaxation time. Impose a ‘no phone at the table’ rule during your family dinners and weekend activities, avoid looking at screens at least half an hour before bedtime. Blue light tricks brain into thinking it’s a daytime. Therefore, your pineal gland doesn’t release melatonin that prepares body for sleep. If you absolutely have to use your phone before going to bed, activate the Night Shift setting (Display & Brightness on iPhone and iPad).

Have a life outside your work. If it means finding a hobby or a like-minded community, do so.

Learn to say ‘no’. Take your wellbeing seriously. You do not have to work overtime every day and every weekend. It is not sustainable.

Get enough sleep. Unless you belong to the 3% of the population that can thrive on less than 6 hours of sleep per night, you should aim for 7-8 hours. Our cortisol (stress hormone) levels are lowest around midnight and highest about an hour after we wake up. Make sure you are fast asleep before midnight, so you can get the benefit of it.

Organise yourself. Part of the stress comes from keeping endless to-do lists in the head. Spill it all out onto a piece of paper and organise it into blocks (whether that’s by project, by type of activity or by completion date).

Stay in touch with your body. Your body signals you when something is not right. Let the body speak for you. Become aware of your shoulders – are they up or down, is there any tension? Place awareness on your jaw – are your teeth clenched tight? Your breath – are you breathing into the top of your lungs (chest expanding)? That’s a stress breath. Take at least a few deep breaths into the bottom of your lungs (your belly expands on the inhale) when you notice any tension in the body.

Get your body moving. Exercise has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression, to relieve stress, to improve mood, self-esteem and cognitive function.

Practice mindfulness. Simply be aware of what you are sensing and feeling – be present whether through meditation, visualisation practice, breathing or prayer. It helps to relax the body and reduce the stress.

Hydrate sufficiently. Being well-hydrated improves sleep quality, cognition and mood. No, a can of fizzy drink does not count as water.

COVID-19 added to our already stressful lives  immensely. Being bombarded with negativity and triggered into survival 24/7 means that we need to take responsibility for our own wellbeing and be proactive in seeking solutions that work for us. Switching to body’s parasympathetic nervous system, so we are able to rest, repair and digest, will come as a result of a conscious effort.