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  • Writer's pictureRandy Weekes

The road to burnout is paved with good intentions

We joined the “Let’s make the world a better place” club to help other people. We didn’t join to get hurt. And many of us, at some point in our career, have risked burning out. Why does this happen?

We began with enthusiasm and a feeling of being lucky to have this job. Over time something changed.

Now we are tired, unable to sleep, beating ourselves up inwardly and blaming everyone else outwardly, fragile inside and prickly outside, cynical, bored and somewhere among sad, angry and frightened. We don’t know how we got here, can’t figure out how to get away from here and darkly unclear whether anyone would ever again want us anywhere else, anyway. If that feels familiar or looks like someone you know, we may indeed be talking “burnout”.

It happens – quite a lot. One study judged half of a single group of returning international staff to be at moderate or high risk. It happens at home as well. It happens after a long period of non-stop stress without recognition or support from others, and the decaying of our own ability to cope.

There is a test, “Maslach’s Burnout Inventory”. It looks for three indicators – exhaustion, cynicism and an inability to make things happen. The opposite state is engagement – energy, involvement and making things happen. How exciting it is to feel engaged. How dark it feels to be burnt out.

Burnout may develop from constant stress, yet it isn’t the same as feeling stressed. Stress is “too much”. Burnout is “nothing left”. As one source puts it, a lot of stress may make me fear I’m drowning. Burnout leaves me feeling dried up.

The best cure is prevention. The organizations in which we may work to the point of burnout can do a lot to keep it from happening. They can provide supportive feedback, promote work/life balance, provide training and ensure that there are adequate breaks for workers who are exposed to prolonged stress. And we ourselves can do a lot to prevent it.

Take care of your body

These strategies are part of practicing safe stress. If you’ve already hit burnout, you’ll be thinking “I don’t feel like it!”. Sorry. I know. I understand. Start with a small step. Drink a glass of water. Watch a silly movie. Let a friend cajole you into taking a walk. Cry. Then laugh.

  • Exercise (yoga is great, and doesn’t require a gym or a street to run on)

  • Eat healthy food

  • Sleep

  • Drink lots of water

  • Laugh

  • Relax and do things that are satisfying, rewarding and fun

  • Celebrate the victory of each small step

Take care of your feelings and relationships:

  • Make life outside work a priority. It isn’t a distraction, it is an investment in being able to work better and more sustainably.

  • Talk with friends in person or through the Internet

  • Laugh

  • Use comfort entertainment – movies, books, music

  • Keep a private journal. Treat it like a friend who has ears to hear.

  • Understand stress. Read about it. Respect its impact on you and others. Be deliberate about strategies to manage it. Support others and accept their support.

Take care of your spirit:

Some of us are “religious”, with an articulated faith and a community of common belief and support. That belief system and that community of support, along with practices like prayer and meditation, are important in helping us to feel joyful and connected to something beyond ourselves.

Some of us are not connected with a particular religious structure or community. We too are spiritual creatures and are made stronger by nourishing the spirit through awareness of our values and through reflection arising from meditation, reading, music or quiet time in nature.

What if it is too late and I fear I’m already down the road to burnout?

Life has lots yet to offer and enjoy. You can act now to get off the road, or to begin the return journey. When we are stressed, it seems hard to step back far enough to manage the crises. If we don’t, however, stress may become distress and distress may become burnout. And if we are already burnt out, exhaustion may make it hard to do anything.

Start with a small step. Be informed. Talk to someone about the way you are feeling. Read something about stress and burnout. Give yourself permission to act… or to rest. You aren’t weak or deficient – you are just injured, in the same way an athlete sometimes gets injured. You owe it to yourself and your good work to take care, and to get better.

What can you do?

Do you want a ‘back of the envelope’ test to suggest whether you may be approaching burnout? The Headington Institute has a good self-test.  

More Resources:

HelpGuide is a great resource. Their guide “Preventing Burnout” is short, readable and helpful. 

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