We need to keep talking about burnout
Burnout can happen even if you love your job—perhaps especially then. Louise Lilja shares a cautionary but relatable tale of burning out in 2019, then shares the five key things that can prevent the phenomenon from taking hold, according to mental health research.
Soccer coach Jürgen Klopp recently made headlines as he announced his departure from the role of head coach at the Premier League club Liverpool, citing a diminishing energy reserve as his reason. This unexpected move sparked discussions on burnout—its nature and implications.
I might not be the coach of a world-famous soccer club, but I am, unfortunately, no stranger to burnout.
One morning in September 2019 I woke up crying and I could not stop. I did not really stop for two whole weeks. Attempting to work and even embarking on a work trip proved challenging as the tears would impact my focus and productivity.
After a few days, my manager called me and asked, in an accusatory tone, why I was working from home. My answer was “because I can’t stop crying.”
My joy was gone, replaced by exhaustion and an overwhelming desire to sleep. I withdrew from social interactions, even feeling like a stranger to myself. It was a frightening experience, leaving me thinking, "Is this my new normal?"
Reflecting on the reasons for my overwhelming sadness, I acknowledged work-related stress, juggling managerial responsibilities with too many other work tasks and not feeling much support from the company I worked for. I had a genuine love for my job, but the complexities of office politics were overshadowing that passion, and I could not keep up anymore. Additionally, the completion of a theater play that had filled my free time for months left me with a sense of emptiness and loneliness outside of work. Despite me being accustomed to managing my stress and anxiety, neither of which were new to me, this time was different.
After two weeks of feeling like this I went to see my GP and was signed off for burnout. I went home and I cried some more.
Burnout is a long-term phenomenon that is much more than having a tough day or tough week. When we are burned out, we see measurable changes in both the brain and the body that are difficult to reverse. It’s a slow, cumulative process that can eventually debilitate us, making dedicated time off the only cure.
Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley
In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition, characterized by chronic workplace stress. It manifests through energy depletion, mental distance from one's job, and a sense of ineffectiveness. A 2021 McKinsey survey revealed alarming burnout rates among Americans, with 42% of women and 35% of men consistently experiencing it. Another report found that millennials (59%), Gen Z (58%), and Gen X (54%) in the US have even higher burnout rates when rated independently.
Public figures like Jürgen Klopp, singer Jess Glynne, and tennis player Naomi Osaka have all spoken out publicly about burnout, yet the social stigma persists. In my own experience, I struggled to accept that I was burned out, viewing it as a weakness that challenged my self-confidence. This perception is common, as many still associate burnout with personal inadequacy.
Addressing burnout involves acknowledging it as a genuine issue. Recovery is non-linear and varies for everyone. Research from Applied Psychology Health and Well-being journal has shown certain activities which possess characteristics that not only contribute to alleviating burnout but also play a significant role in fostering recovery and a renewed sense of well-being.
You’re best served doing things that are detached from your work and your day-to-day routines. In fact, when people did work-related activities on the weekends, they actually detracted from their wellbeing and energy levels.
Relaxation can be something as simple as reading a book or listening to music. Or spending some time by yourself and giving yourself space to connect with your emotions. Perhaps, going out with friends is your way of relaxing. There is no right or wrong: do what works for you.
Burnout will make you feel ineffective and incapable. So, when you do things in your free time that reinforce your abilities, skills, and talents, you will contribute to your wellbeing. Find things you love to do and that you are good at.
Feeling out of control is another classic aspect of burnout and one way to combat it is by taking control of things in your daily life. This can be organizing something at home or perhaps pulling together a smaller project.
Depression and burnout can easily go hand in hand. And closely related to depression and burnout are feelings of social disconnection, loneliness, and separation from other people. One way to combat this can be to try and seek out others and spend time with them. Even a few minutes in someone else’s company can help.
There might not be a one-size-fits-all solution for a happy, healthy, and stress-free life, but learning to prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and embrace a mindful approach to both work and personal well-being can pave the way for a more balanced and fulfilling journey.
While I write this article on the eve of its deadline, rushing to make sure all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed, I recognize that recovering from burnout does not demand having all the answers. It is a process of self-discovery and resilience, and that the work on yourself is never fully done.
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