How to spot burnout signs and manage it

(Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)
(Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)

Overworked, underappreciated and oh-so-tired of being tired. Anyone who’s ever had a job has probably felt like this at one point or another. But if how you feel at work is casting a dark cloud over your entire life, you could be in deep trouble.

Burnout is not a “convenient excuse” for getting a few days off, nor is it an easyto-dismiss “first-world problem”. It’s a very real phenomenon.

This was made clear recently when the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially classified it as a condition recognised in the latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD) manual, which is used by doctors and healthcare providers worldwide.

Burnout is described as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully 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,” the WHO explains in the ICD manual.

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 isn’t 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.”

Sunday blues

Causes of workplace burnout could include over-responsibility with a team that’s under-performing, 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 ‘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 level of pain or other negative symptoms is 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.”

In order 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 cause 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’ which 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 behaviour.”

Too much pressure

Any work situation where someone is undervalued and/or overloaded will lead to problems, Linde says. “Sometimes it’s only the work context that’s the culprit, but there can be additional factors that can make someone vulnerable to burnout at work.” COMMON

Workplace problem

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’s 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 contributing 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.

Countdown to chaos

There are typically four stages of burnout, Linde says.

1. Honeymoon period Marked by high energy, satisfaction felt from solving problems and making changes, a general interest in your job.

2. Low on fuel

There’s a gradual onset of frustration, tiredness and a loss of interest in work. You distance yourself from colleagues and clients and start to become more cynical.

Denial of emerging problems and a tendency to blame growing problems and mistakes on time pressures and your work load. S More mistakes are made.

Physical symptoms, such as fatigue and sleep disturbances, worsen.

Escapist activities include excessive drinking or eating, smoking or spending excessively.

3. Heading for a crisis

Job dissatisfaction dominates your life.

You want to be left alone, you reject offers of help, always feel angry and are unable to relax.

You start thinking of extreme ways of getting away from the pressure – moving, resigning, divorce or even suicide.

4. Burnout

Your energy is depleted and the symptoms get worse.

Your health is deteriorating.

Suicidal thoughts may become an actual plan. “At the crisis stage and beyond, burnout becomes depression and needs to be treated as such,” Linde says.

Managing burnout

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” which 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 whole person,” she adds.

Making changes

While we can’t always change things that cause stress at work, we can change the way we relate to 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 TAKE A DEEP BREATH 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.

Eating right

A balanced diet will ensure that you’re consuming a variety of vitamins and minerals that will help your body function effectively and provide you with energy, dietician Raylene Peine says.

“There are a million excuses for why we can’t eat healthily, but it’s time to start realising that unhealthy eating does damage to more than just our waistlines.” Taking a packed lunch to work instead of buying take-outs or vending machine snacks is better for our health.

It’s worth it in the long run, even if it means getting up a few minutes earlier or setting aside time in the evening to prepare your lunch every day.

“When looking for foods to include in your diet, look to wholegrains such as barley, quinoa and oats; lean proteins like legumes, fish and soy; a variety of vegetables and fruit; unsaturated fats such as olives, avocados, seeds and nuts; and make sure you drink enough water,” she says.

Peine warns against food and drinks that are high in sugar as they cause a sudden spike in energy and blood glucose. This might make you feel better and more energetic, but the effects are short-lived.

“It’s also important that you try not to skip meals, as this can lead to feeling exhausted and increase the likelihood of reaching for a sugary snack

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