Burnout: Recognising it and healing it

It had been several months since I’d taken a day off, but my productivity was lower than ever. Every day I got up before sunrise and sat down at my computer with stubborn determination, knowing that I hadn’t done enough that week (or that month) to earn a day off. Trying to apply my brain to my work or study was like trying to push two magnets of the same polarity together… my attention just seemed to slip away, and suddenly I was browsing dresses on Ebay or in my garden reorganising pot plants. What I needed was a break, but what I did was spend even more hours at my computer.

I was studying my honours degree full time and working full time hours, yet I didn’t believe ‘burnout’ applied to me. After all, I don’t have children, I don’t have a stressful job, and I had escaped the worst of the COVID restrictions by fleeing to Queensland. Other people had it worse than me, so therefore, I didn’t ‘deserve’ to have burnout.

(I also had undiagnosed ADHD, as it turns out, but that is a story for another day).

One day, a friend said to me, ‘You should have a holiday. Nobody has worked harder than you this year’.

Something about that statement hit me in the feels. Although I hadn’t had a single day off in six months, I had never acknowledged how hard I was working. And it wasn’t just about how many hours I spent doing it… it was about how hard I was on myself for my perceived failures and imperfections. It was about how invested I was in my own perfectionism, how tightly I had attached my self-worth to my grades and client feedback, and how much I beat myself up when I fell short.

And with burnout taking hold… I was falling short a lot.

Burnout in COVID times

Right now, blurred work boundaries, family pressures, stressful circumstances, adapting to restrictions, and having to make ongoing difficult and confusing decisions around our priorities has led to a spike in burnout cases everywhere. Downtime and relaxation can be harder to find, holidays and events have been cancelled, and we may be adopting maladaptive stress relief techniques that ultimately put more strain on our mental, emotional, and physical health.

Burnout, if not dealt with, can have serious consequences, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, vulnerability to illness, negative effects on your relationships, and ongoing mental health issues.

Recognising burnout

Burnout manifests in different ways, but there are some common signs.

You may feel exhausted and unmotivated, and lack energy and focus to do the things you need to do.

You could also find your sleep patterns have changed, and you might be experiencing insomnia or oversleeping.

You may find you’re more prone to headaches, colds, cold sores, or digestive issues.

You might be using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better, more than you usually would, or feel unable to moderate these behaviours when you know they’re detrimental.

You might be more negative, cynical, and irritable, finding yourself snapping at people you care about.

What to do about it

Ideally, of course, it would be great if you could simply take a month off and lay by a pool in a beachfront resort, with someone bringing you coconuts (or whatever your ideal holiday looks like). But for most of us, this isn’t possible. So let’s look at some more realistic approaches.

Exercise. Even just a little bit! Research has shown that even a 5-minute high-intensity workout has benefits for your health. Resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, and anything outside can reduce the symptoms of burnout.

Sleep. Even if you don’t feel you have time to get more sleep, you may be able to improve the quality of your sleep with good sleep hygiene practices. A good sleep has numerous knock-on benefits for your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Meditation or mindfulness. You don’t need to sit for an hour every morning to get the benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective against burnout and can be done anywhere at any time, and even just a few minutes can reduce stress and improve wellbeing.

Joyful activities. What makes you happy? Whether it’s arts and crafts, chatting to a friend, cuddling your dog, singing, or dancing, it’s important to make sure you have some joy in your day, every day.

Talk to a mental health professional. Talking through your unique experience with a trained professional can have profound benefits for your mental health and the progression of your burnout. Talk to us if you want to explore this option; we have a number of qualified and caring professionals with appointments available.

Self-talk and burnout

Burnout isn’t just about how much you’re doing; it’s also about your attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and self-talk around those things.

As humans, we are not optimized to be under pressure all of our waking hours, but this may well be our reality. If your combination of work, family responsibilities, and domestic duties means you’re working nearly all of the time, or even if you’re preoccupied with those things when you’re supposedly off the clock, you’re effectively trying to operate a battery-operated toy on flat batteries.

Try to avoid comparing yourself to other people who seem to have it together right now. Comparing your inside experience to other people’s outward appearances is a recipe for disaster.

While you may not be able to avoid or reduce your commitments right now, you can change how you approach them and how you speak to yourself around them. If you’re holding yourself to ridiculously high standards and beating yourself up for not meeting them, you may be accelerating that burnout unnecessarily. If you’ve invested your self-worth in any aspect of your life, the effects of any perceived ‘failure’ can be crippling.

It’s okay not to be the perfect employee, the perfect parent, or the perfect partner or friend. Exercise self-compassion and forgiveness, and take time to offer yourself some kind words at the beginning and end of every day.

I took a short holiday last month, and am now strict about taking a day off work every week. I’ve popped my productivity expectations down a notch, recognising that I don’t need to earn as much as I thought I did, and ironically… letting go of my perfectionism has actually improved the quality of my work and my ability to view myself kindly and with positivity.

I recommend it!