Identifying burnout: the silent simmer

Work-related stress

When we hear about burnout, we often think about outbursts of rage or someone storming into an office to hand in their resignation letter. But the truth is that burnout is often gradual. Whether we were raised to work to live or to thrive through our work, the truth is we are all vulnerable to stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress; so how did we get here?

Burnout has been around a while

Burnout isn’t new, in 1981 the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) established three dimensions for burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. In 1996, the MBI incorporated new categories for human service professionals such as exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficiency. In every case, burnout leads to a decrease in job satisfaction and an increase in employee turnover.

The last straw

One of the challenges of burnout is that, in many cases, there is no tipping point. In fact, that last straw that breaks the camel’s (or our) back, might be signaling that we are already well beyond burnout. It is not surprising to find ourselves demotivated, overburdened by responsibilities, or poisoned by workplace toxicity, without ever realizing that we are, indeed, burnt out.

Signs of stress

In this sense, we could describe burnout as a slow simmer that affects other aspects of our lives, which is why it is important to create firewalls to keep burnout from spreading:

  1. Assess our stress tolerance: Are you able to tolerate high levels of stress? High-functioning adults often ignore the first signs of stress without realizing their long-term consequences. If we feel we are working through stress, we might have to hit the pause button to avoid further damage.
  2. Listen to our bodies: Some signs of stress can be feeling tired, headaches, having an upset stomach, feeling on edge, rapid heartbeat or chest pain, insomnia, frequent colds or infections, or a loss of sexual desire and/or ability. If these symptoms are frequent or associated with your routine (such as arriving to work or seeing an email notification from work), this could mean you are, indeed burnt out.
  3. Listen to our minds: Our minds can also send messages such as: feeling emotionally depleted like work is “sucking the life” out of us or finding ourselves dreading going back to work on a Sunday evening, feeling worthless, overwhelmed, alone, or disconnected.
  4. Listen to our loved ones: Are people around us expressing concern about how work is affecting you? Sometimes the best way to measure stress is to listen to people who care for you.
Healthy Habits

Of course, the best way out of burnout is to step away from the source of stress, but not everyone has a choice. But we can incorporate habits into our routine to release some of the stress and protect ourselves from further harm.

  1. Sleep! Sleep is essential for our mental health, which is why it is important to make time for a good night’s sleep. Even if this means not catching up with our favorite TV show.
  2. Exercise: Exercise is also a key intervention to regulate our bodies. But we must be careful to avoid turning workouts into another box to check on our to-do list. Exercise regularly but not obsessively!
  3. Space: Creating a mental space for us just to be, without deadlines or emails. This could be setting 30 minutes aside to take a walk at lunchtime or stopping for a coffee on our way to work, reading a book, or, even better, meditating. This step might be the hardest to accomplish as we might not be used to taking time for ourselves.

Self-care is our first defense against burnout. By taking time to care for ourselves, nurture our souls, support our aspirations, and ensure we are well-rested and cared for, we are also investing in our future and that of our loved ones. In the same way, we cannot heal a burn injury with a broken bandage, we cannot care for others if we are hurting.