Burnout: Why we need to stop neglecting our wellbeing

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  • Burnout is chronic stress that has not been effectively managed.
  • It manifests as a loss of motivation and a growing sense of emotional depletion, cynicism, and resentment.
  • Burnout is commonly brought about by work stress and can spill over into other areas of your life.

Many of us start the new year with energy and enthusiasm and look forward to taking on a variety of new projects.  

But this rejuvenated outlook isn't always accompanied by the necessary planning and preparation to ensure a smooth and successful outcome. Unforeseen hurdles and stumbling blocks can also get in the way of our best efforts. 

So, when demands escalate and complications spiral out of control, your precious goals now seem impossible – and you're facing total burnout.

Life-threatening conditions

The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed burnout in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition.

The classification doesn’t necessarily make the condition any less critical as stress has been proven to contribute to numerous medical conditions, some of which can be life-threatening.

Herbert Freudenberger, a of the founders of the concept of burnout, defined the condition as “loss of motivation, growing sense of emotional depletion, and cynicism”.

While the condition was originally classified as an occupational phenomenon (caused by work), Psychology Today states that it can appear in other areas of your life, such as caretaking, parenting, and romantic relationships.

Advice on stress management is thrown around like confetti, but getting a grip is easier said than done – and ruthless action may be required to get your ducks in a row once more.

Ask for help

It may be difficult to ask for help, but keep in mind that is not a sign of weakness.

In a 1994 interview, Steve Jobs said that he never found anybody who wasn't prepared to help him when he asked them. Agreeing with Jobs, the Harvard Business Review highlighted that good leaders prevent burnout by avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach.

Todd McKinnon, CEO of computer software company Okta, told HBR that he noticed his staff members weren’t taking leave during the pandemic and were taking strain: “The data shows that, at home, our staff were kind of working 24/7.”

McKinnon decided to give his staff off on Fridays, but found that they then worked on the following Saturday instead because their workload hadn’t changed. This made him realise that the deliverables needed changing too.

Diving into self-care

The cure for burnout is not self-care. This is what twin sisters and co-authors of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Dr Emily, and Dr Amelia Nagoski say about self-care as the answer to burnout.

In their TED Talk about the condition, the sisters don’t bash self-care, but rather redirected the focus to adequate support. 

Amelia says, “How can you be expected to self-care your way out of burnout? You can’t. 

“What you need is a bubble of love around you, people who care about your well-being as much as you care about theirs, who will turn toward you and say, ‘You need a break. I'm going to help you with this. I'm going to step in in that way.’

“The cure for burnout if not self-care, it’s all of us caring for each other. We can’t do it alone, we need each other.”

Taking the time

When we have adequate support, we have the space and freedom to put plans in place to do things that help minimise burnout:

  • Meditation and mindfulness – Research has proven that meditation and various forms of mindfulness practices significantly reduce stress and emotional exhaustion – two of several major contributors to burnout.
  • Exercising – Most of us are aware that there are great mood-boosters that come after a sweat session. Those happy hormones and endorphins are released for good reason. Research has proven that there are benefits from cardiovascular exercise and resistance training when trying to minimise or prevent burnout. The participants in the research reported that the workouts not only brought a good sense of wellbeing, but that they suffered less psychological stress and emotional exhaustion.
  • Nutrition – It's been said before: your gut is your second brain. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that the scientific community call it the enteric nervous system (ENS). It is made up of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract all the way from your oesophagus to your rectum. So, eating those lean proteins, veggies and fruits, seeds and grains, affects our mental health as much as it affects us physically. Research conducted in Finland discovered that of the two groups of test subjects – eating "healthy" or "unhealthy" food – those from the healthy food test group scored lower on the Bergen Burnout Indicator (BBI).
  • Sufficient sleep – Our bodies don’t really shut down, so why is sleep so important? Several functions, like breathing and heart rate, slow down. Muscles gradually relax as well, and this allows for good rest and recovery, particularly for those who are athletes or into heavy fitness. Quite a lot also happens with your hormonal regulation, reinforcement of the immune system, and metabolic regulation. All these functions work in synergy and help with overall well-being – this means the body AND the mind.

Health truly is wealth, and when it comes to making a decision about your well-being, think about the protocol when flying with a minor – put on your own oxygen mask BEFORE you attend to the child. 

Whether the "minor" is actually your child or children, your extended family, your place of work, or even your household, the best way to help them is to put your health and wellbeing first.

READ | The telltale signs of burnout you should look out for 

WATCH | Struggling with working from home? Here's how to make a success of it and avoid burnout

READ | Doctor burnout costly for patients and healthcare system

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