Overworked, underappreciated and tired of being tired – anyone who’s ever had a job has probably felt like this at one point or another. But you could be suffering from burnout – chronic work stress that hasn’t been managed.
“It’s characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Our jobs might be precious – especially in a country like South Africa where unemployment is rampant. But if we don’t recognise and manage burnout, we could find ourselves incapable of doing the work our lives depend on.
BURNOUT OR DEPRESSION?
It’s not always easy to distinguish burnout from depression, says Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist from Randburg, Johannesburg. The symptoms are similar.
It includes constant fatigue, hormonal imbalances, sleep that’s neither restful nor restorative, constant irritability, anxiety, gastrointestinal complications, brain fog, apathy and a feeling of being disconnected from your support network of friends and family, says Dr Ela Manga, a Johannesburg psychologist.
“You can see how easily this can be diagnosed as depression, which leads to the incorrect treatment and a longer road to recovery,” she says. She warns that if burnout is not treated, it can lead to adrenal fatigue, chronic illness, severe depression, erratic behaviour and even suicidal thoughts. “Basically, burnout leads to a complete disconnection from who you are as a person.”
Causes of workplace burnout could include over-responsibility with a team that’s underperforming, a boss who’s a bully, or excessive travel – even if it’s business class, Linde says. There’s one main difference between burnout and depression, she adds.
“In the case of burnout a person’s negative thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms tend to peak on a Sunday afternoon or evening – the socalled Sunday blues. “Their state of body and mind gradually improves through the week, and by Friday they’re feeling significantly better. “Over the weekend they find it easy to jump out of bed in the morning, have enough energy and interest to manage a full day, and their negative symptoms are greatly reduced.”
But people with depression have symptoms that don’t change, Linde explains. “Winning a prize or receiving a gift will be met with the same flat or detached reaction as having a minor car accident or a health issue.”
To distinguish between the conditions, “questions about work, and how someone is finding it – in terms of its meaning, satisfaction and their energy levels – is often a good opener for exploring possible burnout”, Linde says. “Gentle questioning about the Sunday blues versus their moods on Fridays can also show this pattern quite quickly.”
WHAT CAUSES BURNOUT?
Burnout is caused when your body is unable to recover from long-term stress, Manga explains. As humans, we’re hard-wired for survival and have built-in mechanisms to alert us to any potential threats and to protect us from them.
Your body does this by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare you for emergency action – the heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and the senses become sharper.
At the same time, the immune system is suppressed. “Constant stimulation from technology, work and life stressors are modern-day ‘threats’ that constantly trigger the body’s stress response – the release of this chemical cascade that floods the system and gives us a burst of energy.” Our natural survival instinct may be helpful in the short-term, Manga says.
“But when our bodies are always responding to stressful situations and our immune systems are constantly being suppressed, it weakens the body.
“This can cause inflammation, digestive problems, sleep disturbances and changes in our mood and in our behaviour.” Any work situation where someone is undervalued and/or overloaded can also lead to problems, Linde says.
COMMON WORK STRESS PROBLEMS
· 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.
·Doing work that is monotonous or unchallenging.
·Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment.
LIFESTYLE FACTORS THAT LEAD TO WORK STRESS
·Working too much without making time to relax or socialise.
·Being burdened with high expectations from others.
·Taking on too many responsibilities without help.
· Not getting enough sleep.
· Lack of close or supportive relationships.
PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO WORK STRESS AND BURNOUT
·Perfectionist tendencies – feeling that nothing is ever good enough.
·A pessimistic view of yourself and the world.
·The need to be in control and a reluctance to delegate.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: We cannot always change things that cause stress at work, but we can make a change in the way we relate to the various demands on us.
“We must take responsibility for our wellbeing and create new habits that will support us to be truly resilient, flexible and adaptable to our rapidly changing environment,” Manga advises. “Energy management requires that we support the body, mind and heart; that we cultivate a way of living with more awareness of our behaviour, lifestyle choices and triggers of our stress response.
“We need to be living more mindfully. Part of this is having courageous conversations in the workplace around these issues,” she says.
Try this 5-5-5 breathing exercise to relax yourself, Manga says:
·Inhale through your nose for a slow count of five, breathing in deeply from your belly and visualising the air filling your body.
·Hold the breath for five counts.
·Exhale slowly for a count of five through your nose or mouth, while imagining complete relaxation and letting go. Do this exercise three times a day for five minutes at a time.
It’s important to get support and counselling to tackle the habits and patterns that have led to burnout, Manga stresses. “Treatment needs to address the restoration of physical health through diet and good-quality prescribed nutritional supplements.
Restoring sleep patterns and deep rest is imperative. “Healthcare schemes need to create awareness of the problem of burnout and work on methods to support more conscious and energised lives.”Manga adds that businesses need to move away from the old models of “workplace wellness” that focus on workers’ physical activity and health assessments, and look at what causes stress at work – factors such as excessive workloads, unrelenting long hours and managers’ unrealistic expectations. “We must cultivate a way of living that’s more conscious, integrated and supportive of the who