Beware, everyone, burnout on the loose
A COMMON ailment is going around. And you probably know someone plagued by it. Caused in part by social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the pressure to check work email outside of office hours, it could hit you, too, especially if you do not know how to nip it in the bud.
Burnout is everywhere
A recent report from Harvard and Massachusetts medical organisations has declared physician burnout a public health crisis. It pointed out the problem not only harms doctors, but also patients. The research reads: “Burnout is associated with increasing medical errors.”
About 95% of human resource leaders said burnout was sabotaging workplace retention, often because of overly heavy workloads, one survey found. Poor management contributes to the burnout epidemic.
“Organisations typically reward employees who are putting in longer hours and replace workers who aren’t taking on an increased workload, which is a systematic problem that causes burnout in the first place,” says Dan Schawbel, the research director of Future Workplace, the firm that conducted the survey.
Mommy Burnout, a book by psychologist Sheryl Ziegler, resonated with women who had run themselves into the ground trying to be super mom (and dads made it clear they were burned out too).
Amelia Nagoski, a choral conductor who was admitted to hospital for burnout, was juggling the demands of a doctoral programme when she experienced severe abdominal pain.
Doctors concluded that it was “just stress” and told her to relax. It turned out that she had stress-induced inflammation from burnout.
Ziegler defines burnout as “chronic stress gone awry”.
The big three symptoms are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective, according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a survey designed to measure employee burnout.
Other symptoms can include frequent colds or sicknesses, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as with too much alcohol or online shopping.
Part of the difficulty in pinpointing burnout may be because burnout is a non-medical term.
Emily Nagoski, a health educator and co-author of a book with Amelia Nagoski, said: “Everybody intuitively recognises what burnout feels like in their bodies, feelings and thoughts.
Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors, the Nagoskis said. It is important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future.
Stress “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter (stressors),” the Nagoskis continued.
To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. They must allow their body to complete its stress response cycle. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors. “They assume their stress will go away if they’re on top of things, if they’re accomplishing things and constantly checking things off their to-do list,” Emily said.
That is a lesson Paula Davis-Laack learnt the hard way.
She practised commercial property law before the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The fast-paced environment gave her a constant adrenaline high as she closed deals and kept so busy that she barely had a snack.
Eventually, her frequent headaches, stomach aches and colds threatened to drag her down, but no doctor could diagnose her condition.
One day, while writing a document, she felt like she could not breathe. She bolted for the nearest clinic.
After two more medical crises landed her in the emergency room, she feared a mental or physical collapse if she kept going. She decided to walk away from law.
Still unsure of what was wrong, she trawled the internet for information on burnout. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what happened to me!’”
She returned to graduate school to study well-being, the effects of stress and the effect on the workplace.
In 2013, she opened the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute in Wisconsin. She now teaches workshops on burnout.
For those who suspect they might be on the road to burnout, there are practical tools to mitigate it. Among others is physical exercise, sleep and positive social connection.
Fixing burnout can feel like adding more stressors. An employee who takes a lunch break in a park (time in nature reduces stress) might feel pressured to stay late at the end of the day. A yoga class is another item to squeeze in. A mother cannot quit her parenting job.
To address time-management issues, the Nagoskis provide worksheets in their book to help readers reprioritise activities.
Gender might play a role in burnout
Researchers from the University of Montreal surveyed 2 026 people, half women, in 63 different workplaces. Their work, published in the Annals of Work Exposure and Health, found that women reported higher levels of burnout.
One reason was that women have more work-and-family conflicts.
Steven Manning remembers the time he realised he had become pessimistic about practising medicine. One Wednesday at his family care practice, he worked on electronic medical records well past 9pm.
He had seen about 30 patients that day, but felt he had not given a single one the highest level of care because the appointment times were too short. Yet the hospital and insurance companies kept pressuring him to see more patients a day, not fewer.
“I began to think, ‘I’m burnt out. How did I get to this point? I don’t enjoy coming into work.’”
It wasn’t too late to make a change. Within a year, he started a direct primary care practice, a model where patients pay a membership fee, negating the need for insurance billing. Without mounds of paperwork, he had time to do what he truly wanted – help patients.
Now, he talks to patients about depression, anxiety and stress and notices that many patients are burnt out, especially mothers of young children.
Lawyer and mother Anna Swain knows the feeling.
She poured her heart and soul into fixing the troubled lives of criminals who had messed up with drugs and violence only to wind up devastated when her hard work seemed pointless.
“I’d call my mom every day on my way home from the office crying,” she says. “I was either sad over a client who was having her third meth-addicted baby or crying over a shockingly rude email by opposing counsel.”
When she added motherhood to the mix, her feelings of failure increased. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody does with a first child.”
Burnt out on “doing the next thing I was supposed to do to be a good girl and get ahead,” she knew she needed downtime, but she was afraid to take a step back.
“I started creating little poems and rhymes in my head. I felt exhilarated,” she says. Eventually, Swain wrote a children’s book. “I felt a sense of purpose again,” she says.
Preventing burnout requires hard decisions. Everyone has the same amount of time in a day – 24 hours.
At first, you might panic that you are not “accomplishing” something. But before long, you may notice that you have moved further away from a breaking point. Your downward spiral will change directions.
This article was first published in Washington Post.