Learn about burnout.
The answers to important questions about burnout are contained in this blog post. They are drawn from years of experience working with clients in burnout as a psychologist in private practice, and contain the information I share with my clients to help them understand what is happening, and what they can do to to begin feeling energetic and whole again.
Definition of burnout
The term burnout was coined by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.
Freudenberger wrote, “The body says no, but the head says go,” to describe burnout.
Frequently, it is those people that are the most motivated, dedicated, and committed to their work that find themselves in burnout. Most are high achievers. They are idealists and perfectionists and are dedicated to their careers. They work long hours, carry intense workloads, and meet unrealistic deadlines. They believe they cannot take time away from work to recharge.
People in burnout had high energy levels and positive attitudes towards their jobs, but this is gone. Their energy reserves are shot. They have hit the wall and are unable to comprehend how they used to work at the level of intensity that was their hallmark.
People in burnout have concentrated on becoming, achieving and performing for years, but have paid little attention to what these efforts have cost. They have focused almost no attention on their own self-care.
Burnout is the consequence of neglecting your emotional and physical health. In burnout, both your mind and your body have broken down due to overwork and maltreatment. When this happens, you have stopped being able to function.
Warning signs of burnout
Being in burnout is like running out of gas in your car. In this comparison, the car is you, and the level of gas in your tank is the amount of energy you have. When you are in Burnout, you have only fumes left in your tank.
I meet people that are metaphorically stranded beside the road, unable to start their car, because they have run out of gas. A short list of some warning signs that you are in burnout, that parallels this image of running out of gas, includes:
- Never feeling rested
- Not being able to get out of bed
- Not having enough energy to get through the day
- Not having the energy to exercise
- Not answering your phone
- Not being able to run errands
- Constantly feeling irritable
- Hiding from friends and family
- Wanting to escape from your life
Difference between burnout and depression
People in burnout are often diagnosed with depression by their physicians. Some symptoms of depression that come with being in burnout include feeling listless, having no motivation, being unable to concentrate, feeling disengaged from the world, and sleeping too much or being unable to sleep. Most people in burnout have stopped doing basic activities like grocery shopping and cooking because it takes too much effort to feed themselves well.
The problem with physicians diagnosing people in burnout with depression is that it’s easy to overlook the bigger picture. People that are depressed are not necessarily in burnout, but physicians should investigate whether burnout is present when they see depression so they can help their patients appropriately. This is because depression can be a symptom of burnout, but it’s only a small part of the whole.
There’s also the danger that people will be prescribed antidepressants without any discussion of burnout. This can be a mistake because antidepressants give people a bit more energy, which can allow them to take themselves further into burnout if they don’t understand what’s going on.
Rather than simply accepting a diagnosis of depression, I suggest people look at the bigger picture to uncover how they got there. What’s driving my depression? Why aren’t I taking better care of myself? Am I in Burnout?
How to recover from burnout
In my experience, there are five basic steps to recovering from burnout. I caution people that they can remain in burnout for years if they don’t address their underlying reasons for being in burnout, and change how they think and behave.
Put gas back in your tank
Whether you take medical leave, vacation, or continue to go to work, I ask my clients in burnout to make sleep their number one priority.
One of the first things I get asked when I work with clients in burnout is how long it will take to recover. Based on experience, my response is that it typically takes about seven weeks after they authentically start to take care of themselves before they will start feeling energetic. “Really? Seven weeks?” is their usual response.
I will ask them how long they been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. They will say it took quite a while. I will ask them whether a seven-week recovery period seems so long, given how long it took to get into this condition.
Learn to pace yourself
Pacing is a technique I teach my clients that are in burnout. As the term implies, pacing involves setting manageable goals so you can avoid over-doing it in the future. Learning how to pace your activities requires significant effort because you have to unlearn longstanding habits and replace them with new, healthier ones.
Pacing involves learning to accept limitations and to adjust expectations accordingly. Working flat out to achieve a goal or meet a deadline just won’t work anymore.
Address long-standing physical injuries
I feel confident saying I have never seen a client in burnout that has taken good care of themselves physically or emotionally. A few have been compulsive exercisers, but even these individuals admit they haven’t listened to what their bodies need.
For a significant number of my clients in burnout, working with a physiotherapist is an important step in their recovery because they need to address long-standing physical issues with their necks, shoulders or upper backs. Sometimes the problem is with their hips or wrists. But there’s often something physically out of kilter as the result of long-term neglect.
Establish a regular exercise routine
Research documents that the single most important factor in preventing future episodes of Burnout is for people to implement and stick with a regular exercise program over the long term. A real commitment is required. When exercise starts to disappear from a person’s schedule, it means they are in the process of collapsing, and that the Burnout cycle is repeating.
Address underlying psychological concerns
I meet many people that have poor self-care skills. They have focused a lot of energy on external projects, but have put little time or energy into meeting their own needs.
It’s important to look at what function working to the exclusion of all other activities has served. What experiences did they have as children, and what messages did they receive, to make them work so hard and neglect their own self-care? I always ask these questions when I meet people in Burnout because addressing early life messages can help them avoid future episodes of burnout.
Consider taking medical leave
Many of the clients I see for burnout are completely exhausted. When a person can no longer concentrate, can’t read, can’t pay attention in meetings, and can’t hold a thought in their heads or formulate sentences, it’s time for them to step away from their desks. They are no longer productive, and are in danger of damaging their professional reputations.
I suggest they take medical leave when they are on the verge of quitting their job, perceive they can’t take vacation or have no vacation time available, or are unable to rest while continuing to work.
To initiate a medical leave, your physician will provide you with a note, addressed to the Human Resources Department of your company, indicating that you have been put on medical leave. It’s that simple.
Learn to work smarter
I talk with clients about how they can change their approach to work so that they can recover from, and stay out of, burnout. One of the cardinal rules is working smarter. This means routinely tapping into only 65% of the energy you are capable of expending on a day-to-day basis.
If you are willing to routinely work at 65% of your capacity, it means you can reserve 35% of your energy for tomorrow. You can occasionally dig into this reserve when an important deadline looms, but I caution people against entering this zone for more than a couple of weeks every year.
Some of my clients say at first that it’s not possible to hold back 35% of their energy in reserve, but I know that it is. Holding back energy means you will need to not work more than core business hours as a general rule. It means you will need to take your full lunch hour to visit with friends, attend an exercise class, or read for relaxation. It means you won’t work flat out during core work hours. It means you will take time to chat at the coffee machine a couple times a day. And it means you will not work weekends.
Research documents that no one can concentrate to a really high degree – as if you were studying for exams at university – for more than four hours a day on a routine basis without incurring harm.
Burnout outside of work
I have focused the majority of this post on discussing workplace burnout. Other types of Burnout exist and deserve mention. Caregiver burnout occurs when people become exhausted from caring for dependent children and parents or spouses. In these cases, the approach to recovering from, and avoiding future episodes of, burnout remains the same.
A third type of burnout is called relationship burnout. In these cases, people enter burnout because they remain in relationships with demanding partners that they are unable to please. And they exhaust themselves trying.
A dirty little secret many employers won’t tell you is that they are prepared to let you work yourself to the bone. This is because you are solving a big problem for them when you take on more than is reasonable.
Sometimes, people recognize that they are perfectionists, or that they take on other people’s work, or that they have poor personal boundaries, but they don’t change their behaviour. In these situations, it is helpful to look a little deeper into what’s going on. Be curious about why you aren’t changing your behaviour. Are you gaining something from behaving the way you do?
In other words, look for the secondary gain you are achieving. Ask the question, How am I benefiting from being in Burnout? Secondary gain is sometimes obvious. For example, perhaps you have problems in your personal life and are avoiding these by remaining at your desk.
Of the many reasons that people find themselves in Burnout, it is not uncommon for them to be partially or fully responsible for their current state. More important, however, once you realize you have contributed to your own Burnout, is finding the courage and the support to change.
Seek professional help
People in burnout are dealing with the consequences of being overworked, and hounded by internal and external pressures. There are four different types of professionals you may want to consider working with if you are in burnout. They include a psychologist, physician, psychiatrist and physiotherapist.
Psychologists can help you understand why you push yourself so hard, and why you fail to adequately care for yourself. They can help you find the motivation and the courage to change. More, they can help you learn how to change, which is something the majority of people find difficult to do on their own. Psychologists can also offer you support, which can be crucial while you do the hard work of changing.
Most people turn to a physician when something goes wrong. Some physicians are able to recognize burnout, which is good, so look for one that is knowledgeable about burnout. They can also put you on medical leave from work.
A psychiatrist is a physician who has specialized in understanding and treating mental health issues. They understand burnout and the underlying contributing factors. They are the ideal professional to prescribe psychotropic medications. It’s also great to have a psychiatrist on your side if you take medical leave from work because insurance companies tend to not challenge claims that have a psychiatrist’s signature attached to them.
Physiotherapists can play an important role in helping people recover from Burnout because people have often neglected their bodies, and bring tight muscles in their necks, shoulders and upper backs, at a minimum, to the physiotherapist’s office. People in Burnout are often surprised to learn that they don’t have to live with chronic pain.
Recommended books on burnout
Burnout by Herbert Freudenberger (1974)
This book is out of print but you will be able to find a used copy on-line. It is well worth the effort to find, however, because you will recognize yourself in every page.
Fried by Joan Borysenko (2012)
Borysenko presents Freudenberger’s work in a concise format. You only need to read the first 42 pages of this book, which is great for people who like to get in and get out quickly.
The Art of Extreme Self-Care by Sheryl Richardson (2011)
Designed as a practical handbook, Richardson provides 12 strategies for transforming your life, one month at a time. For people that are looking for ideas about how to improve their self-care skills, this book offers practical steps for how to make good self-care part of daily life.
A Year by the Seaby Joan Anderson (2000)
In this autobiography, Anderson reveals how her decision to retreat to the family cottage in her early 60s, rather than follow her husband to a new city for yet another job transfer, brought extraordinary changes to her life. The book documents how Anderson gradually rediscovered herself and her potential.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)
In Sackville-West’s most popular novel, she advocates, through the central character of Lady Slane, how women can take control of their own lives rather than living for the sake of others.
Explain Pain by David Butler (2003)
This book must be ordered online. In it, Butler explains the concept of pacing for people suffering from chronic pain. Learning to pace your activities is highly valuable to people in burnout.
— Dr Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta