More than one professional in various fields has one day of simply not coming to work, disappeared while on a business trip or screamed out his resignation letter to his colleagues. This is common enough to have its own name and is something everyone in a job involving high, persistent levels of stress is at risk of.
Long hours, high expectations and the occasional crisis will sap the emotional reserves of anyone sooner or later, especially when breaks from the strain are few and far between. The good news is that it is quite possible to bounce back from the early stages of burnout, which relies on a person realizing what warning signs should be looked out for.
Signs of Approaching Burnout
Burnout rarely makes itself known suddenly or over the course of an hour. Many people have a small freak out in the office as the result of an unexpected setback or frustrating situation, but this is not what burnout generally refers to.
Much more often, the main symptoms appear gradually over some time: listlessness, low motivation and energy, a general sense of gloom, and helplessness. If someone feels exhausted, unappreciated, and uninterested, not just occasionally but every day, an impending burnout is very likely. This is especially true if the severity of these symptoms has been increasing gradually.
It can also be signified by “a kind of tightness in (the) stomach, or waking up and not feeling particularly motivated to start the day or go to work.” Elena Touroni, PhD, explained that you might be burned out if “you’re not feeling quite robust in yourself. You’re not feeling resilient to deal with challenges.”
As chronic stress causes physical changes in the body – elevated blood pressure, muscular tension, and high levels of certain hormones – physical symptoms are also likely. The most common of these are headaches, back or neck pain, and frequent colds and other infections due to an impaired immune system.
Much of the above may make it seem like a person is overly stressed and that’s all there is to it. Burnout is a separate kind of mental state, though. Someone “merely” suffering from dangerous levels of stress is likely to seem hyper-emotional, anxious or angry, but someone heading for burnout will generally lose all hope for the future, interest in his responsibilities and the capacity to feel happy or in control of his life.
Things to Do to Avert Burnout
The first and often most helpful thing to do is to approach a human resources worker or manager and explain that you are suffering from excessive stress. Issues relating to workplace stress are some of the most common problems faced by employees, and companies nowadays are often surprisingly accommodating when it comes to offering counseling services, vacation days or a reduced workload. If such a person treats the problem as being only in your mind or the result of insufficient commitment, resign. The situation will never improve in this case, and no job is worth ruining your mental and physical health over.
Siobhan Murray, a registered psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Solution, wrote, “Another issue can be that the values of the company are seriously at odds with the person’s own values, which creates a sense of strain and dissonance, because they’re doing something that they don’t believe in.”
Apart from taking a holiday or reducing your workload, look for other factors at work that may be causing stress unnecessarily. Examples of these include poor communication, unclear strategic vision, and procedures that pointlessly hinder the execution of tasks. These characteristics will affect everyone in the organization negatively and should be dealt with like a priority issue.
Even if someone is not showing the signs of burnout, but still worries about the level of the strain he’s exposed to, the best treatment for long-term stress is lifestyle changes. Giving up smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and exercising all have tremendous effects, not instantly but very persistently.
Another lifestyle factor to consider is having emotional supports and outlets outside of work. If you spend much of your evenings and weekends worrying about all the things you haven’t managed to do, whether you have a future working at your company and what might fall out of the sky tomorrow, it will be impossible to relax completely.
“Repeated small doses of self-care are more effective than a once-a-week event,” says Julie Radico, PsyD. Hobbies, from amateur boxing to landscape painting, all force the mind to focus on something other than work, and these brief interludes can easily make the difference between being constantly stressed and being able to cope over the long term.