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How to tell if you're heading for burnout

How to tell if you're heading for burnout

Burnout, alongside mental health and wellbeing, has been in the spotlight more in the last 18 months than ever before.

The combination of adjusting to the challenges of working remotely, the restrictions on our freedom and the increased pressures within the job role have sharpened our focus on a problem that has always been there.

But what is burnout, and how do we tell if we’re heading towards it?

Last year, a couple of months into the first UK lockdown I was sitting in my garden after lunch and looked at my watch. The time was 1:45 and I remember thinking “God, still another 3 hours to go!”.

I had been through a particularly busy period of presenting numerous sessions on subjects such as stress, energy, wellbeing, and ‘how to thrive when working from home’. It has been immensely stimulating and enjoyable, and I rather smugly thought I had adjusted very well and very quickly to this new reality.

I absolutely love what I get to do for a living, so the idea that I would be horrified at the prospect of ‘still another 3 hours’ of work rapidly brought me down to Earth. The truth was, I had been so busy I hadn’t been paying as much attention to my own wellbeing as I could have been.

I was eating well and exercising most days, but there were plenty of habits I had slipped into in that had contributed to this low energy state. I felt ‘burned out’ and it was the wrench I needed to level up my own energy management strategies.

When I look back at that time now, I can see that it’s far more likely I was merely struggling with disengagement rather than full blown burnout. I was still showing up and getting the work done, but I was starting to feel detached from it and losing my sense of purpose.

It was uncomfortable, but I was still a long way from burnout.

The best model for burnout comes from Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, who describes ‘3 dimensions of burnout’.

3 Dimensions of Burnout

1) Chronic exhaustion

2) Cynicism and detachment

3) Lack of self-efficacy

Experiencing any one of these by themselves isn’t pleasant, and a bit like rolling a stone off the side of a hill it’s likely to gather momentum and pick up the other two along the way.

But how do we tell if we’re just feeling a bit disengaged, tired or ineffective, or if we really are at greater risk of burnout?

Maslach’s research identifies 6 predictors of burnout which I will introduce in a moment, but first it’s worth noting that to combat burnout there are two levels at which we can operate.

The first is on an individual level, where we have in place the basic self-care strategies that will enable us to balance our energy and manage our stresses through the day.

Physical wellbeing habits, buffers and breaks peppered through the day, clear boundaries in place to delineate between work and home, mindfulness or journaling practices…

First and foremost it’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves. Some workplaces make this easier to accomplish than others, but ultimately nobody can do it for us.

The second is on an organisational or team level, where the design of the job itself could be leading you towards burnout. If you are already experiencing one or two of the burnout dimensions and you have a mismatch with any of the 6 predictors, you’re probably on your way to picking up the full set.

The polar opposite of burnout is engagement. Understanding that a job can lead to one or the other ends of this continuum (by design or default) gives us a chance to identify any mismatches between the job and the person.

The 6 burnout predictors

1) Workload

It’s at the top of the list not because it’s the most important, but because it’s the one that most of us automatically assume is the only reason people get burned out.

It’s not the workload itself, but rather our ability to manage it.

2) Control

The less control and autonomy we have over our work and the way we accomplish it, the more of a predictor it is for burnout

3) Rewards

It’s not only a mismatch between the value we believe we bring to the organisation and how we are rewarded materially with our pay and perks, but also social recognition that can be a factor. It’s possible that working remotely has made it harder for some people to feel that their effort is being ‘seen’, resulting in a mismatch between expectations and reality.

4) Community

It will come as no surprise that working in a team where you feel supported and valued is good for productivity and engagement. So it stands to reason that toxic, low-trust work environments with low will do the exact opposite.

5) Fairness

Institutionalised or even occasional displays of inequality can trigger a deep sense of unfairness, even if we are not the ones to be directly affected. And it’s not just gender pay gaps or discrimination that constitute unfairness. Favouring people on a ‘who you know not what you know’ basis can also build a backdrop to burnout.

6) Values

When your personal values don’t match the lived values of the organisation, it can quickly erode your engagement and enjoyment of working there.

As I look back now at my not-really-nearly-burnout experience from last year, the disengagement I suddenly felt that sunny afternoon was really just a brief lapse explainable by a lack of recovery from a busy period of presenting. Or it could have been just the side effects of the overripe avocado I had just eaten.

Either way, it jolted me out of autopilot and made me re-evaluate my approach to working remotely which brings me to the final and most important point of all of this: we need to be checking in with ourselves regularly to assess how we’re doing.

Mindful awareness of our emotions and the quality of our thinking compared with an inner knowledge of what’s normal and acceptable for us. Not comparing how we’re doing to how we think other people are ‘handling it’.

You know how much stress you can usually take on before it begins to push back on your performance. You know how engaged, energised and enthusiastic you usually feel about your work. You know how closely matched you usually are to your workload, your sense of control, the rewards you receive, the work community, fairness and values.

A small departure from ‘normal’ may be acceptable and we’ll all have an individual tolerance for these temporary deviations. But, like the frog in the pot of slowly boiling water, lots of small shifts can compound over time and then all of a sudden you wake up one morning and don’t want to go to work.

It’s up to each of us to take care of our own wellbeing, but even the most resilient and positive individual can struggle to thrive in a job that poorly matches our needs.

Coaching is a powerful way to quickly identify areas where there may be a mismatch, and gain clarity on the actions you can take to address the situation. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees, and an expert coach equipped with the knowledge and skills to ask the right questions can help you take that crucial step back and see things from a broader perspective. By focussing on things that could become an issue and being armed with your own personalised plan you will be well prepared to cultivate positive mental health in order to thrive both personally and professionally. 

George Anderson is a wellbeing and performance coach helping individuals and organisations take more of the actions that will enable them to thrive. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about his sessions and programs on wellbeing, mindset, performance and resilience.