What Is Burnout: Expert Advice On How To Manage and Prevent It
It's not uncommon to feel more stressed and anxious these days, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. As we try to find our footing under "the new normal" between personal life, work, or even studies, the additional stress can take an extra toll on us, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, and potentially leading to burnout.
Psychological health is just as important as physical health, so we sought three experts; psychologist and president of Hong Kong Association of Psychology, Dr Adrian Low, founder, CEO and executive coach at Balance Group, Judy Xu, and director and owner of FitnessU and life and career coach, Tali Weiss on the best ways to deal with burnout.
Knowing the Basics
What is burnout?
Xu defines burnout as "the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. It's a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. People in [a state of] burnout often feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet the constant demands of life."
Weiss describes the feeling as like a "depleted balloon" while Dr Low defines it as the "discrepancies between the physiological demands within a workplace and the inability to either manage or cope with such work demands." Of course, burnout doesn't just apply to the workplace, as students can also suffer from burnout.
What work situations can cause burnout?
According to Xu, "burnout can happen in situations such as too much work over a long period of time with overly demanding job expectations, too much uncertainty or feeling of lack of control over one's own work, lack of sleep and relaxation. It is a situation where the demands in life overwhelm the capacity of the individual in some form."
Similarly, Weiss says working long hours, taking on too many tasks, and not having work-life balance can cause burnout. But other causes also include "not being appreciated or acknowledged, being in the same position or role for too long, not having options for promotion, and not having healthy boundaries."
Dr Low says that out of all the workplace stress triggers, tensions between colleague-colleague, boss-employee, staff-client relationships, stemming from role ambiguity is the most severe that could lead to burnout. This is when employees "perceive a lack of role clarity and significant information that is required to perform his or her role appropriately."
What are some signs of burnout?
Xu defines the telltale signs into 5 aspects: physical, emotional, attitude, cognitive, and behaviour.
Physical: Always feeling tired and lacking energy, physical pain such as back and neck pain, headache, digestive issues, low immunity, sleep issues
Emotional: Loss of motivation, feeling helpless, trapped, or defeated, emotionally numb or detached
Attitude: Loss of purpose or meaning, self-doubt, increasingly cynical or negative outlook, exit intentions such as quitting the job or seeking an out in a personal relationship
Cognitive: Poor memory, rigidity in thinking, reduced mental capacity and feeling overloaded, difficulty in making decisions or making poor decisions
Behaviour: Withdrawal from responsibilities, skipping work (arrive late or leave early), procrastinating, taking longer to get things done, neglect appearance, social isolation
Is there a risk factor when it comes to burnout?
Weiss says perfectionists and those who are trying to do everything for everyone will be more at risk. As for age, millennials tend to push themselves to achieve as much as possible. "Fear of missing out is also a strong risk factor. Boomers experience much less burnout."
Xu echoes this and calls them "type A-high performers." She notes that "such individuals tend to double down to gain more control when there is uncertainty or more evident risk factors. When you have a pandemic that is prolonged and individuals cannot adjust to the new situation, an overly strong pattern of wanting to control the surrounding environment can easily lead to stress and burnout."
Burnout in Time of A Pandemic
How is the current pandemic contributing to work burnout?
"Inability to focus on one task as the current pandemic sees working parents confined with kids. They have to manage the kids, on top of their own work schedule," says Dr Low. "On a cognitive level, staff will tend to have anxious thoughts of losing their jobs [due to layoffs caused by coronavirus] and their future becoming bleak," he adds.
Xu says most people feel anxious and have worries about the future. "Work from home can take away the social network and support which makes people feel lonelier. Homeschooling can add a big amount of additional work to parents, lack of exercise and exposure to nature [due to social distancing] and also families being separated across borders due to the pandemic" all contribute to burnout.
But Weiss thinks the pandemic allowed some people to have a breather. "Employees who work from work felt less stress because they don't need to rush in the morning to work and rush back home in the evening. They can work from the comfort of their own home, can take more breaks, rest more. It seems like many of my clients feel more at ease."
But she noted that these feelings were in the beginning and may change if the pandemic continues longer. These also mostly applies to families who have extra help to take care of children, those who are single, or couples with no children so "if you don't have help that can add more stress to working from home."
As more of us work from home, some tend to experience 'Zoom burnout.' Why does this happen and how can we manage it?
"Humans are built to have natural face-to-face interactions, which helps with the production of oxytocin, the social hormone that makes us happy. Long term use of technological devices in an isolated fashion drastically drops the production of oxytocin and melatonin which is an important hormone to give us quality sleep," says Dr Low.
For Xu, Zoom burnout may due do to the "extra effort" needed to maintain communication. "It takes more effort to feel the audience, to observe the facial clues, to see the engagement and interest level, to multi-task to teach and check in the chat and response to questions."
To manage this, she suggests taking 3–5-minute gaps between meetings and doing some stretches or breathing exercises. You can also surround your screen with some plants to give you a sense of nature. She added that you can "say no [to meetings] and set your boundaries when you can."
Dealing With Burnout
What are some of the ways we can prevent burnout?
Dr Low said to be wary of three things: our thoughts, behaviour, and emotions.
When it comes to our thoughts, we need to be aware of negative thoughts. We can reframe negative thoughts to positive ones instead.
In our behaviour, we need to set boundaries so that we have sufficient time for ourselves. Simple things like exercising regularly helps.
Finally, we need to be aware of our emotions. If we are experiencing negative emotions, we can try to find out what triggered the specific negative emotions and reframe the negative thoughts and invite positive emotions to sink in.
For Weiss, finding out the cause helps us know what we need to do to prevent burnout. She lists some general tips:
1) Good time management can reduce some of the stress
2) Take enough breaks during work hours
3) Establish boundaries and know what you can and cannot handle
4) Learn to delegate tasks or ask for help
If we do end up suffering from burnout, how can we manage it?
It's important to find time to do other things that are not work-related such as doing sports, finding a hobby, and doing something you really like. Try meditating, reading self-help books or listening to audios. But simple things like eating healthily and drinking a lot of water helps too.
Specifically talking about workplace situation, Dr Low says the use of language is important. It "needs to be collectivistic in nature such as fostering team spirit" instead of authoritative. On the other hand, employees "need to be accountable in a way that presents to the managers how, what, when they do tasks and be honest" when they are having difficulties so that demands and expectations can be balanced.
Weiss believes that it depends on the company that we work for. For companies that prioritise wellbeing then "it will be much easier to prevent burnout as they will collaborate better to help the employee." She suggests companies provide wellness and fitness programs such as educational workshops, mindfulness, meditations and regular fitness classes if possible.
She emphasised that raising awareness on burnout is just as important as preventing it. "Many employees are not even aware that they are experiencing burnout. So it's important to understand yourself and be aware. Listen to your inner voice, which can be tricky as it takes a lot of time to learn. But you can practice. Be aware of signals your body sends and don't ignore them even if they're small. It's important to take immediate action to prevent it from being burnout."
"Write down the time you felt at your best, identity what and why you were feeling and why you don't feel the same now. Think about what has changed, what's missing, and what you need in order for you to feel as good as before. It's important to identify what causes the burnout to address it," she adds.
Xu says it's important to "be kind instead of harsh to ourselves" and to have a good support network and community. Don't hesitate to seek external help such as counselling or coaching "to support you to build resilience over time because we are facing an overload of information, tasks, and uncertainties so building up resilience and being able to manage the modern world is a muscle that needs to be trained and built up over time." You can also consider getting wellness treatments such as acupuncture, and massage.