Writing about burnout is very personal for me. In fact, many years ago, I found myself spent and exhausted, lying in hospital. It was for a physical condition, but deep down I knew it was because I had pushed on with what I was doing even when I was tired, getting increasingly irritable and cynical about the work that I was doing. In fact, on many nights, I found myself crying, not wanting to go to work the next day.
At the time, I didn’t know it, but I was suffering from burnout. And let me tell you, it was not an experience I would wish upon anybody. Not only did it manifest physically, it also translated into me being the worst possible version of myself. And it took a huge shift in my mental model and tons of self-care to recover fully.
What is Burnout?
Burnout was identified by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an “occupational phenomenon”.
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
With the onset of the pandemic, it seems, the experience of burnout is becoming more common. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report in 2020, close to one third of workers in Asia Pacific cited increased rates of burnout. A 2021 report by Aon also cited burnout as one of the top 5 issues impacting employees in the APAC region.
Preventing and Managing Burnout
One thing you must know about burnout is that it does not manifest overnight. Some describe as being the frog in water that slowly begins to boil, and before you know it, you have a boiled frog.
This is likely because we may not be aware of the symptoms, or when looking around us, we tend to see everyone putting in hours and still be able to persist with what they are doing – that if we do feel exhausted, we think “it must be me”.
Unfortunately, as the boiled frog story goes, sometimes you don’t perceive that you are slowly getting burnt out.
Here are some ways to manage and prevent burnout:
- Practice self-compassion. Sometimes when you feel exhausted, you might experience an influx of thoughts and emotions that are challenging e.g. “I must be incapable, that’s why I’m feeling exhausted”, or “If I admit that I’m tired, everyone will think I am weak”. This can only add to the pressure you’re already feeling. It might be helpful, instead, to be able to:
- (a) distance yourself from the emotion i.e. “I am not my feelings.”
- (b) speak kindly to yourself i.e. “I’m doing the best I can with the resources that I have.”
- (c) recognise that you are not alone i.e. you aren’t the only one feeling this way.
2. Focus on what is going well. Owing to the existence of the negative bias, our attention tends to be grabbed by what is not going so well, or negative. For example, we would likely pay attention to a huge tiger if it appeared right in front of us, but walk past a bush of blooming flowers – simply because if we didn’t, we’d be tiger food. We pay attention more when people insult us, than when they praise us. In the long run, this could have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Hence, we need to be intentional in focusing our attention on what is going well and what we can be grateful for.
- Instead of ruminating on what’s wrong, we could ask a different question: What is that ONE thing that has gone well today? It could be small things like “I found a 50c coin on the floor!” or big things like, “My covid test is negative, finally! WOOHOO!” (True story for me, I just recovered from covid last week)!
3. Reach out to ask for help. I know that it may not always be easy to do this, as you might worry that people would judge you. Especially in the workplace, you might worry that it will mean your superiors (and colleagues) may perceive you as not being able to hold your own weight, or might not want to give you new opportunities. However, the opposite of not reaching out for help, is suffering in silence. That can greatly exacerbate the symptoms of burnout, and make recovery longer and much more difficult.
Remember that asking for help is not weakness. It is actually a sign of strength – that you are aware and acknowledge that things may not be so great, and are willing to do something about it. Also, it is a recognition that you are only human, and there will be times when yo struggle. Here’s how you can begin:
- You could say: ‘I’ve got a problem or challenge and I could really use your help. Will you talk it through with me and see what we can come up with?’ In this way, you are also welcoming support from your colleagues while letting them know that you might be struggling.
- Bear in mind that you don’t have to share it with everyone. Instead, share it with someone you can trust so that you can get some initial support. They might be able to provide a listening ear or point you to resources that may benefit you. Who knows, maybe they too are experiencing some of the symptoms!
- You can also utilize resources such as counselling services that are private, confidential and personal – whether in person, or online. You can then receive just-in-time support during difficult moments, or ongoing support to strengthen your well-being in the long run. Remember, it is akin to seeing a doctor when you aren’t well – the earlier you do, the earlier you can get much needed support.
“Asking for help is never a sign of weakness. It is one of the bravest things you can do. It can even save your life.” (Lily Collins)
4. Conserve your “battery”. One of our most limited resources include our time and energy. For everything that we do, we expend our battery fuel and sometimes, even keep going when the battery is supremely low. But just like a phone, which would not work when its battery is flat, we too, cannot keep going on when we are exhausted. Instead, we have to learn how to conserve our energy. Here are some ways to do so:
- Lighten your load wherever possible. If you feel that there is already too much on your plate, it is important to let the people around you know. While you may perceive this can jeopardize your career, pushing through it might lead to both negative mental and physical effects, leading to a drop in your overall performance. Worse, it would impact your team who are depending on you. When you let people know that a lighter load would be helpful for you to be able to do your best, you are also being responsible to the team. When you are recharged, you can always return the favour by helping them out 🙂
- Focus on what is most important. Sometimes we perceive everything as urgent and important. That can create unnecessary pressure on you and lead to overwhelm. What might be helpful is to spend 10-15 minutes at the start of the day to pencil down what’s on your plate, and then determine what is most important to attend to. To go even deeper, you can chunk down your tasks into segments of the day, so that you can focus your energy more efficiently.
- Reduce exposure to what is draining/toxic. This could be a fellow colleague who is always complaining to you, or having to attend to family calls in the middle of work. Identify what is draining or toxic, and be conscious about limiting your exposure. For example, adjusting your phone mode to “DND” when you need to focus, or booking a meeting room (if on-site) so that you can be away from office gossip. Drawing up these boundaries can go a long way in conserving your energy.
The strategies above hopefully provide you a toolkit to manage and prevent burnout. Sometimes we might feel tempted to just ignore the symptoms or think that this is a “phase”; however, that is akin to ignoring a wound on your arm – which can fester if not attended to.
Taking care of yourself is not you being weak or inadequate, it is recognising that you aren’t an engine that can keep going without recharge. Getting the recharge enables you to come back stronger. 💪
I share authentically what I think possible solutions might be, but it is purely from what I have studied (scientific evidence) and my own experience in coaching & training others in this area for the past 11 years. I am not here to diagnose or treat. If you need further help, please do seek the necessary support.