Have you ever felt exhausted, unmotivated, unfocused, and just unable to do any work? I know I have; those feelings tend to make me fall behind on my work, cause me to be even more delayed on my deadlines, and most of all, they physically and emotionally drain me. However, when I came to the knowledge that I was suffering from burnout, my approach and mentality towards everything changed. I have learned various strategies on how to deal with this feeling and I’m going to briefly cover everything I know.
First off, let’s define burnout. The National Academy of Medicine defines burnout as a syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e., cynicism), and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work. This definition is divided into three parts:
- Emotional Exhaustion: where a person feels fatigued and tired from all the psychological stress they’ve put themselves under.
- Depersonalization: where a person stops perceiving their reality as their own.
- Decreased sense of accomplishment: where no matter how much effort is being put into work, the person does not feel like they’ve made a difference or improvement.
Now that you’ve read and understood that definition, you can see that it is an actual academic and occupational syndrome. People tend to struggle with burnout and feel embarrassed or stay in complete denial of the symptoms. When in reality, if we were to ask random people if they have suffered from burnout, we’d find that it is extremely common and nothing to be embarrassed about.
What causes burnout?
Burnout can be caused by almost anything, but the most common reason is chronic exposure to stress. Overworking yourself and not acknowledging any of the signs your body is giving you to slow down, including depriving yourself of sleep and simply exhausting yourself. It is the build-up of many weeks of continuous grinding and repetition, causing a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.
Burnout should not be confused with the occasional irritation or frustration you get after a disappointing moment. Burnout takes much longer to develop and is much harder to overcome.
It is very tempting to put an awful lot of pressure on oneself to achieve some astronomical expectations when you first start a new course/job. However, these high expectations can be detrimental to your progress over time. Therefore, setting more realistic goals will allow you to work towards them more easily and possibly surpass them.
What are the signs and symptoms?
So, how do I know if I might be suffering from burnout? Burnout can manifest in many ways: some people get more physical symptoms such as nausea and stomach aches. Others get more emotional symptoms, such as the feeling of failure or demotivation. The signs and symptoms of burnout include:
- Long-term fatigue, regardless of the number of hours slept
- Increase in pain and tension
- Intellectual exhaustion
- The feeling of not being able to absorb information
- Apathy towards topics
- Unwillingness to study/work
- Decreased motivation
- Decrease in performance
- Increased irritability due to frustration
- Increased frequency of illness
- Feelings of anxiety and depression
- Lack of creativity and inspiration
If you cannot decide if you are going through burnout or not, take the simple Burnout Measure by Malach-Pines (2005) to find out. If you have determined that you are suffering from burnout, read on to find out how to overcome it.
How can burnout affect me?
Burnout can have both short term and long term effects on you, this is why it is important to find ways to overcome it and prevent it in the future. Short term consequences of burnout include decreased job/study performance and, overall physical and emotional distress. However, some more severe future consequences include medical errors and, unfortunately, clinician suicide.
A 2014 study by Golkar et al, states that patients with chronic stress are less capable of downregulating negative emotions. They concluded that this is due to dysregulation in the emotion and stress-processing networks. All in all, this renders them more susceptible to depressive symptoms.
How to overcome burnout?
I used to feel like I had hit rock bottom like there was no way up from there and that I would stay in that pit forever. We must acknowledge that burnout is not the end of the road, it is a simple obstacle that we must overcome to continue on our path to success. Here are a few tips that I use to overcome my burnout:
- Recognize the symptoms: acknowledge that you are burning out. Read the symptoms and signs above and try to compare your own to them. Am I going through burnout or am I simply frustrated?
- Don’t ignore it: once you acknowledge you are in burnout, do not, I repeat, DO NOT ignore it. Burnout can be managed, but ignoring it will cause more damage than good. It can be tempting to push harder and try to tick off all your boxes but trust me, the mental and physical damage you will do is not worth it. Pushing through might cause you to crash even harder when it is over.
This is not what you are aiming for.
- Throw out your current plan and make a new one: as distressing and counter-productive that might sound, using the same plan that has caused you to burn out isn’t the greatest plan. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use your old plan at all, you can still use it as a template, but try to alter it so that you don’t reach this point again. Reduce the workload, put in some more breaks, or space out your work over the day.
- Manage your stress: Stress is what got you here in the first place, so let’s deal with it. A small amount of stress can be a good thing as it pushes you to do your best. But a large amount of stress over a long time can have an opposite effect. Try to identify what is causing you stress and then try to come up with ways to overcome it. Remember that stress management is a long term process.
- Take a Step Back: when it gets too much for me, I tend to take a step back. I take a complete pause from everything for a day. I don’t think about my deadlines or responsibilities at all; a complete 24-hour break. This helps me reboot and come back the next day for a fresh start.
- Overcome Procrastination: When taking a step back is not feasible due to the upcoming deadlines and sheer amount of work, procrastination can be a dreaded side effect of burnout. It can cause you to never actually come around to getting the work done. Therefore try to overcome your procrastination so that you can take a break afterward to rejuvenate. Although this has been said a lot, try one of the following methods:
- Start with the easier tasks then move on to the harder ones.
- Try the five-minute method; where you force yourself to sit down for five minutes (if that’s not feasible, then two minutes!) to start work. You see the hardest part of doing work is starting, once you get that done work will flow smoothly.
- Promise yourself a break or a reward after you’re done.
- Get a partner; find someone to hold you accountable and push you to get things done.
- Seek Help: seek out professional help, your university or HR department probably knows how to deal with this well. Sometimes we need professional help to overcome burnout. You can also contact your friends and family to help you through this time, they’ll provide you with emotional support and can stand by you as you resurface.
- Shut Down your Social Media: I can’t stress this enough. Sometimes social media can cause us more stress than a break from our daily activities. A lot of studies have shown that social media can exacerbate anxiety, depression, and many other mental health issues. Sometimes seeing others succeed while you’re going through this rough patch, can cause you to sink deeper into despair. Therefore, taking a step back from social media can allow us to completely cleanse our minds from all that negative energy.
How to Prevent a Burnout
As we always say in medicine “prevention is better than cure”. Try to make changes to your everyday habits before you transit into a full-blown burnout. Small changes over a long time are much better than a complete transition over a short time. Here are a few tips you might want to take into consideration:
- Set reasonable goals
- Stick to deadlines and avoid procrastination
- Eat healthy and drink water
- Exercise more
- Sleep 7-9 hours per night
- Make friends and socialize
- Take plenty of breaks
- Set a time for enjoyment
- Work-life balance
- Manage your time more effectively
- Learn to say no
- Go outside or get a change of scenery
- Take a vacation
All the above points are very useful, however, point 10 I would like to expand on. “Learn to say No”. Spreading yourself thin for the sake of others is a bad idea. We tend to always say yes to people because we want to help them. But sometimes, the time and effort you put into their problems is time and effort you could have put into your own. Make more time for yourself and learn to value yourself above others by saying no. The thought of saying no might be daunting, but trust me, it’s a lot easier than it feels sometimes.
In our fast-paced times, more and more people around the globe are suffering from burnout. I hope that we take away this almost-stigma that has been attached to it over the past couple of years. We need to take care of ourselves by taking a step back and evaluating the situation. Take a real break from time to time, set at least a day off on your weekly schedule, or make small changes to your daily habits. Small changes can take you a long way.
It is easy to start thinking that you’re going through this burnout because you weren’t meant to be in this degree or line of work. But as Alisha Nicole has said; “You can do what you love and still be tired. You can do what you love and still become burnt out. You can do what you love and still get excited about taking a break”. Push through, you’ve got this!