How Close are You to Burnout?
You’ve heard the term. No doubt you know of someone who burned out from burning the candle at both ends for too long. What is it to burn out? Why should you care about burnout? And what can you do to avoid it?
This is a topic I am way too familiar with. I spent most of my adult life working full-time and attending school full-time. The only time I was single-focused was the 6 weeks I studied for the bar exam. All I did was study and take care of myself. I was probably in the best health of my life; which was ironic. Studying for the bar exam is more stressful than the years spent in law school. School is the marathon, and the bar exam is the sprint at the end. If only I allowed myself that same space and love the rest of the time.
It took cancer to remind me my life was way to stressed out and not conducive to living a long, healthy life. I burnt myself out. I was stressed out on a daily basis, not getting adequate sleep, living off of caffeine and sugar, and pushing myself every day. And how did I shut it down or escape? By doing what I had been taught….drink. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was an alcoholic; but I also wouldn’t take my behavior out of the running. I mean, I didn’t drink anymore than everyone around me. I also didn’t eat any worse than anyone around me. Probably a little bit better than most, but it still had a lot to be desired. I measured myself against the people around me, many of whom were on the same destructive path, which wasn’t the best bar for gauging my health and well-being.
Are you at risk?
The classic cases of burnout are over-achievers, Type A personalities and individuals with really strong work ethics. These individuals approach work in unhealthy ways, many times. They are driven by what seems to be internal cues or motivations that have gone haywire. What do I mean by this?
When these individuals do a deep dive into what drives them, they will find circumstances, events or messages from their childhood that planted this drive deep within them. So deep, it’s far from conscious. It may be a voice or an unconscious drive that pushes them everyday. It could be a fear or a need that is based on something learned so long ago they don’t even know what it’s tied to anymore. All they know is they need to do better or achieve more.
These are not the only people who experience burnout. Remember, I said I worked full-time and went to school full-time most of my adult life. Part of that was working to support my family unit. At times I worked two or more jobs to make ends meet, in between degrees. I never really had “time off” from the grind. At some point I couldn’t tell the difference between achievement and making ends meet.
Even those who are passionate about their work are not exempt from burnout. Whenever there is a lack of balance; when we are constantly putting pressure on ourselves to do it all, achieve more and not take time to slow down, enjoy the world and people around us and take care of ourselves, we put ourselves at risk for burnout.
What are the signs?
Unfortunately, you don’t see burnout coming most of the time. It’s one of those things, like cancer, that takes time. It’s not like you’re fine one day and wake up the next having hit the wall. And what gets you there may not be things you would automatically link to burnout. Maybe you start getting the flu every year or every other year, and you only got it every 7 years before. Maybe you start developing allergies you never had, or chronic sinus infections or headaches. Maybe you have less energy than you used to. Maybe it’s all of these and they develop one at a time over a span of a decade. Insomnia creeps in or you don’t heal as quickly. Maybe you start experiencing gastrointestinal issues or anxiety.
The real problem is that we have this picture of burnout as an event, when it’s actually a result. Burnout is what happens to your body when you have stressed it beyond its limits. Your immune system has been in overdrive for so long it no longer functions properly. Your body is crying out, telling you to slow down. We just don’t realize what the message is or means and we keep plowing forward. Maybe your fuse gets shorter as your patience becomes nonexistent. You become less efficient, less productive and end up working even harder to maintain the same level of achievement. Eventually, you cannot reach that same level because your body is working against you.
Even worse? The end result is different for everyone. There isn’t a one size fits all diagnosis like cancer or diabetes or heart disease. I think that’s what makes it so elusive and keeps us from realizing that our lifestyle is what got us there. Consider burn out a process and not a result, and you start to understand it for what it is.
Whatever you do, don’t wait
I’ve reached a point in my life where I am not struggling to make ends meet. I probably reached that point a lot sooner than I realized. But I was afraid if I didn’t keep going, full steam ahead, I would start falling behind.
I would never call cancer a gift, in and of itself. It’s not something I would wish upon anyone. In fact, the path I’m on right now has evolved from the very wish that I don’t want anyone to experience cancer. Instead, I want to be a new voice in your head; one that reminds you why you need to slow down, take better care of yourself, and take time to breathe, smell the roses, all that good stuff. The gift was not in the illness that has changed everything about my life necessarily; it is in the glasses I have been given, through which I try to remember to look every day. Sure, I slip up every now and then and spend a little too much time working on something one week rather than getting out and enjoying myself. But I make up for it. I let it go and breathe. I remind myself that life is about way more than what I’m working on in any given moment.
I have implemented daily habits and strategies that naturally combat a desire to keep running into the wall. Whatever you do, make sure to create your own strategies for maintaining balance. Instead of loading your calendar up with meeting, calls, tasks and deadlines; use it for good as well. Schedule in “me” time, family time, play time, relaxation time, downtime. Make yourself a priority in a different way. You can read more about the benefits of making yourself a priority here. It’s never too late, it just gets harder the longer you put it off. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either. It’s not easy getting to the bottom of what drives you or why you just can’t figure out how to create balance. The answer is not muddling through and spending decades trying to figure it out. We only have so much time in this life. Why waste it struggling and feeling like crap?
Yours in Wellness,