Dr Kieren Bong explains what can cause stress-related burnout, the signs to look for and how to manage and prevent it
Stress is everywhere. There are no maybes about our chances of experiencing stress – and its capacity to leave us in a state of mental overload or burnout – at some point in our lives. No matter what our circumstances are, we must come to view stress not as a possibility, but as inevitability, a feeling bound to present itself no matter what our age or walk of life. Almost everything within our increasingly hectic, technological modern world holds the potential to induce some amount of stress. This is why approaching stress in the right way is essential. By managing stress accordingly, the potentially overwhelming and powerful forces it may exert over our minds can be reduced. It may seem counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that some amount of stress can prove beneficial.
According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkley, “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance.”1 However, Kaufer is referring to an acute stress experienced within a short time span and, in the same way that a pint or two of beer could make you socially effervescent, and eight or nine pints would be more likely to have you stumbling around and loose-tongued, stress in excess can prove extremely unhelpful and disruptive. Long-term stress, also referred to as chronic stress, is detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing if not managed effectively. Long-term stress can contribute towards depression, anxiety and even coronary heart disease.2 Often a side effect of progress and improvement, and sometimes just an irksome symptom of a particular situation, plenty of research has been conducted within this field, and we are therefore left suitably availed to deal with its effects. Stress-induced ‘burnout’ can show itself in several different ways and none of them are particularly pleasant. Feeling constantly stressed, isolated and helpless, not to mention worn-out and exhausted, are all signs that you could be suffering from this unpleasant condition.3
When suffering from stress, every problem may seem exaggerated, unsurmountable and easier to just ignore. Things may start looking pretty bleak and finding the energy to even care about your duties might not seem that important to you anymore. Burnout affects us in more serious ways than ‘just’ our outlook; at times it can also threaten relationships and even your job. It isn’t all ‘doom and gloom’, however, there are steps that you can take to recover and even avoid burnout altogether.
What is stress-induced burnout?
To understand how to combat and avoid burnout we should first understand what it is and how it comes about. Burnout is brought on by constant, unrelenting stress, which brings about emotional and mental exhaustion – as well as more ‘physical’ exhaustions. As demands of everyday life, both at work and at home, begin to take their toll and you start
to feel overwhelmed, your energy begins to wane along with your desire, motivation and interest in whatever it is that is causing the stress in the first place. Reduced empathy, productivity and motivation begin to make way for other more serious symptoms such as resentment, helplessness and cynicism, and there may even come a point where the sufferer begins to feel like they just cannot give any more.3 This is obviously not a good place to be in, emotionally, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that you can do about it.
Stress induced burnout in the workplace can be caused by any number of things, the most common of these being:
Chaotic, high-pressure environment with little chance of relaxation
Unrealistic or demanding job performance expectations
Lack of recognition
Little to no control over your work, career or surroundings
Undemanding, monotonous work
Burnout is not going to hit anybody overnight, it is a gradual and cumulative process, which unfortunately can make it harder to spot and prevent. If you have spotted any of the symptoms mentioned here then it isn’t too late to turn things around – it is never too late, in fact, and you always have options.
Tips to preventing burnout
Instead of jumping out of bed to rush headlong into yet another challenging day, take a little time out each morning to get into a nice relaxing rhythm. Spend fifteen or twenty minutes just relaxing – you could try meditation or light stretching exercises, which can be extremely helpful. Meditation has been practised in many parts of the world (such as India) for thousands of years because people believe that it reduces stress and calms the mind. Some people believe that during meditation, the body ignites the ‘relaxation response’, which gives the body deep rest that is deeper than that obtained from sleep.4 When we are under stress, our muscles tense up. Several areas of the body are prone to tension resulting from stress such as shoulders, necks and back. Light stretching, on the other hand, can help relieve stress through relaxation of muscles.
Eating healthily and nutritiously can also be a great mood enhancer, as is drinking plenty of water. Avoid or limit caffeine intake because caffeine can cause you to feel ‘wound up’, which can make stressful situations seem more intense. It is advisable to moderate your intake of alcohol and make mealtimes calm and relaxed. Some people skip meals when they are stressed, but skipping meals can make stress-related symptoms worse. The better we treat ourselves, the better we begin to feel not just about ourselves but also the world at large. Combined with exercise this can be a great way to really fill yourself with positive energy. Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins – chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and also improve quality of sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
The better we treat ourselves, the better we begin to feel not just about ourselves but also the world at large
This is also a great occasion to put limits on the time and energy that you devote to certain activities and requests. Learning to say ‘no’ is one way of creating boundaries and setting limits on how you give away your time, especially on things that you know are going to put increased pressure on you in one way or another.
At first, saying no can be difficult but you have to remember that by saying no you are freeing up your time and also giving yourself more opportunities to say ‘yes’ to the things that you want to do or that you place more importance on. Prioritising your life is the first step in taking back control and avoiding stress-related burnout at work and at home.
That said, you should also pick a day (preferably your day off, for obvious reasons) where you can completely switch off. This means no mobile phone use, no computer, no emails. In fact, anything even remotely work-connected should be switched off. Give yourself a ‘you day’ and do something that you truly enjoy. If you do this at least once a week you will, almost immediately, begin to feel the stress leave your shoulders like shedding a cloak. If you have already begun to feel the effects of stress, and you can feel yourself going down the burnout road, then you should take action right away. The longer you leave this debilitating condition the worse it will get. It is not irreversible, not by a long way, and with the right techniques and a little support you can bring yourself back into a bright and wonderful world – and the quicker you face it the easier it will be.
One way of tackling demanding or unrealistic duties at work is to speak to your supervisor or manager. Every employer has a duty of care and they can help you if you approach them. Being proactive in this way will also give you a mental boost because you are taking an active, positive approach to the problem. If you find that you need to switch jobs at work, then so be it – your health is more important than any job title, after all. Of course, it may also be the case that an entire career change is what is needed. That can be a scary thought, for anybody, but if your job is making you ill then perhaps it is something worth considering?
Whichever way you choose to tackle things, asking for help and support is always a good idea. Talk to your partner, your friends and your boss. Even the act of talking about an issue can help and the people you speak to may be able to support you directly.
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