Have you ever had this happen? You’re super excited and passionate about something — like a new job, a hobby, or a friendship — and then it becomes stressful for whatever reason. And then you’re hating it, dreading it, feeling anxious about it, and have lost all passion for it. You are officially burned out. The cold truth: People who love their job are more prone to burnout. And now, more than ever (looking at you, pandemic), you might be feeling it.
A Gallup poll has the proof in numbers: In 2019, 76% of employees reported “sometimes” feeling burned out, while 28% of participants said they “always” felt burned out. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is more than feeling stressed or tired — it’s a little more complicated than that. So, what is burnout, how can we recognize the signs of it, and how can we deal with it in a healthy way?
Meet the Experts
Dr. Whitney Casares is a Portland, OR-based pediatrician, AAP spokesperson and founder and CEO of Modern Mamas Club, an app designed to help multi-tasking women find balance and avoid burnout and the website ModernMommyDoc.com.
Josephine Atluri is a mindfulness expert and author of Mindfulness Journal for Parents and the 5-Minute Mindfulness for Pregnancy: Simple Practices to Feel Calm, Present, and Connected to Your Baby.
What is Burnout?
“Burnout occurs when you experience persistent amounts of stress without reprieve leading to exhaustion,” says Atluri. “It can affect your mental, emotional and physical well-being.” Dr. Casares adds that there are three main features of burnout: “One is the feeling of energy depletion and extreme exhaustion.” The next is “increased mental distance from your job, which could be an actual physical job, or a whole variety of situations,” including that of a parent or caretaker, a friendship, a romantic relationship, a volunteer position, or even a passion project. And the third thing is “feeling negative or cynical about the job.” Adds Atluri: “Essentially, any activity that results in prolonged stress can lead to burnout.”
Signs of Burnout
“Feelings of hopelessness, frustration, cynicism, anger, irritability, sadness, and loss of interest in life are all mental and emotional signs of burnout,” explains Atluri. In addition, you might notice decreased productivity, says Dr. Casares. “You’re putting in the effort, but you aren’t able to do it with much ease. Or you might act out because your fuse is lower. Or your creativity may be significantly lower; you might have poor interactions with people you care about.”
“Physical symptoms can include exhaustion, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, weakened immunity, and headaches,” Atluri explains. And some of these physical signs may be caused by depression—stomach pain, headaches, changes in appetite, and sleep difficulties, says Dr. Casares, noting that the mental and physical are often intertwined.
Do these signs slowly build or appear at the burnout breaking point? It depends on your self-awareness, says Atluri. “If you are aware of your body and mind, you will be better able to notice the symptoms as they build up. For example, you can feel things like anger and irritability. You can also notice physical symptoms like headaches and fatigue.” But if you’re not tuned into yourself, “Then it can feel like it suddenly appears out of nowhere.”
Why So Much Burnout Lately?
One word, one number: Covid-19. “It’s been an extraordinary, ongoing stress because it kept happening, and there was never an end in sight. Anxiety hates that unknown, and that creates chronic stress,” explains Dr. Casares. But a global pandemic isn’t the only stressor on our plates right now. Dr. Casares says many of us feel like we need to be juggling it all. “We are expected to be perfect at the job, perfect homemakers, perfect parents, perfect lovers, to be perfectly fit, and the reality is, it’s impossible to be all things at all times to all people.” And if that’s not enough, many women are fighting for equality in the workplace and home life, especially as our awareness grows. So we’re adding one more thing to our plates. And then there’s technology. Dr. Casares says that the constant ding, ding, ding-ing of notifications adds to psychological stress. “Our bodies are primitive; they don’t understand if a tiger is chasing us or it’s a ping on our phone.” As a result, our modern lives — with everything we’re balancing and keeping up with — have become increasingly stressful. It’s no wonder this chronic stress is leading to burnout.
What happens if you ignore burnout? “Unaddressed burnout can lead to more severe issues like depression,” says Atluri. And an increase in frequency or severity of the physical signs, like headache, intestinal issues, and sleep disturbance. Right. So we need to cope.
Unfortunately, many of us choose the wrong coping strategies to try to get a hit of dopamine, says Dr. Casares. “The biggest one for women is the drug of food.” Overeating might give a momentary feeling of happiness, like alcohol or drugs. Or toxic relationships, spending money on things you don’t need, or bingeing on Netflix. “Essentially, anything that numbs your pain or distracts you from it can be less productive and be more of a temporary Band-Aid versus using healing strategies,” explains Atluri.
So what are these strategies? Both of our experts recommend starting small to make permanent positive changes.
- The first baby step is to bring awareness to burnout, says Dr. Casares. You don’t need to change everything suddenly — start small by figuring out the places and situations driving the burnout. Once you know what’s driving burnout, you can plan how to manage one thing at a time.
- Incorporate more breaks in your day to refresh yourself, whether that means some breathing exercises, a walk, or removing yourself from your children to sit in the car for five minutes, listening to your favorite song.
- Learn to say no. How do you want to spend your time? Say yes to the things that bring you joy. Explains Atluri: “When you say no to something, you are saying yes to yourself.”
“Breaking out of a cycle of burnout is not a one-time action — there will be times when you will continue to feel burnout.”
- It’s okay to be mediocre at things. “Adopt selective mediocrity around the things that don’t matter to you,” says Dr. Casares. Put your effort into excelling at something that matters to you. Is it your turn to bring baking to the meeting? Guess what — it’ll get eaten whether home-baked or store-bought, so take that off your plate and buy the muffins.
- Get help. We are not all experts at everything. If the mess in your house is burning you out, get help decluttering and figure out how you can share the housework. And don’t be afraid to reach out to medical professionals to “help you navigate the stress you are experiencing,” says Atluri. You don’t have to fight this battle alone.
- Seek out moments of joy every day, says Atluri. Shifting your focus to the things that are bringing sunshine into your life may dull some of the focus on the crappy ones plaguing your mind.
These small steps will lead to change and improve your stress levels. But don’t be surprised if you reach a point of burnout again. “Breaking out of a cycle of burnout is not a one-time action — there will be times when you will continue to feel burnout,” says Dr. Casares. But you can establish coping mechanisms that will get you back to a place of balance and peace. “Instead, little blips of burnout will happen, and you’re more often in a place of rest and purpose.”