What’s The Deal With Burnout?

Most of us take for granted the chance to unwind at the end of the working week, with drinks after work maybe followed by dinner with friends. Or, let’s face it, Netflix and wine on the couch.

But perhaps you’re beginning to find that the off switch never quite gets flicked. The email alerts keep coming, your brain keeps churning and drinks never quite happen. Plus, you’ve only managed 2.5 episodes of Stranger Things.

Often we thrive in situations like this for a time, drawing energy from the frenetic pace. Other times, it feels relentless and sucks the energy from you with Dyson-like efficiency. It’s this physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that characterises burnout.

While the term ‘burnout’ has lost much of its meaning through many years of hyperbolic use, you should check those eye rolls. For people experiencing burnout, it’s serious, not only for the individual but for society. Estimates put the cost of workplace stress to the economy at upwards of $10 billion a year. And millennials are more likely than other generations to be feeling the burn.

What are we actually talking about?

Much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s appeal as a leading man, burnout defies definition. Researchers have been trying to nail it for around 40 years now, but we still don’t have a definitive list of symptoms.

It’s clear burnout is more than just tiredness. Beyond that, it’s difficult to describe what burnout looks and feels like. It varies from person to person, but the effects are likely to be seen in diminishing performance at work and withdrawal from your social life.

The stress continuum

One thing we do know is stress plays a major role. But even this statement isn’t straightforward.

It seems stress is running the ultimate good-cop/bad-cop racket on our bodies, something scientists are only just beginning to understand. Recent studies suggest short episodes of moderate stress can actually be a good thing. They jolt our brains into increased alertness, lifting cognitive function, particularly when we perceive the stress as providing opportunity.

But when the stress goes on for too long, the impact goes from yay to nay.

Your brain no longer feels perky and up for anything. It wants to shut down. This can lead to the withdrawal and exhaustion commonly associated with burnout.


Finding the balance

Given this love-hate relationship with stress, the question becomes how do we find our happy place on the stress continuum. Psychologist Ali Hill, author of Stand Out, says it’s about having a clear sense of purpose and making progress.

But don’t feel you need to find your raison d’être right this very second. Rather, says Ali, “we have the ability to have many portfolios and many purposes in our lives. So, it’s more about what’s my purpose right now?”

Cynicism is often associated with burnout, so staying connected to your purpose is crucial. And that means checking in with yourself frequently to ask what’s important to you, as this can change over time.

Progress is important too. But be wary of progress for progress’ sake. “Where I see burnout happen in my research, and also my work in organisations, is when we’re making a huge amount of progress,” she says, “but we’re disconnected from why we even started in the first place.”

Identifying the burning signs

Ariana Huffington famously fainted and knocked herself out before realising she had pushed herself too far, but you don’t need to wait until you awake in a pool of your own blood to recognise you are headed for burnout.

Ali suggests keeping an eye on three keys areas of your life: sleep, nutrition and movement. “In 9/10 cases I would start there and ask, ‘what can we do to get you sleeping well, how do we make sure you’re focusing on a couple of fairly good meals during the week and how do we just get you moving – even if it’s just 10 minutes’,” she says.

Behavioural patterns can also be telling. One example is living on coffee or consistently reaching for your glass of wine at the end of the day: “it’s not to say that drinking coffee or having a glass of wine is bad, but it’s actually noticing that I’m doing it to numb my experience,” says Ali.

A better type of new year’s resolution

It’s fine to identify these three areas, but when you’re close to burnout, it can seem impossible to pull yourself out of the cycle. So finding small, achievable ways to address each of these three areas can be the difference.

Ali suggests starting small and, to avoid burning out from your attempts to avoid burnout, choosing things that are fun and relevant to you. Seeing progress is again important – for the statistically inclined, there are a bazillion habit building apps that will literally chart your progress.

Viewing these small resolutions as an experiment can help you find what works for you and engages our curiosity rather than our old foe, judgment, says Ali.

“It also means that work doesn’t have to be our only purpose,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be the only thing we’re striving for.”

Kate is a Melbourne-based writer with a mild podcast obsession. She’s awful at social media, so don’t go looking for her there.