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Are you at risk of burning out?

Kerrie-Anne Chinn
2017-08-07

As we move further into the second half of the year, it’s a good time to check in with yourself to make sure you’re not at risk of burning out. With the Easter break well behind us, and a few months to go between now and the annual holiday season, it’s important to make sure you’re taking good care of your mental and physical health.

Earlier this month, we saw the importance of this highlighted by a story that went viral across the world. Madalyn Parker, a web developer at Olark Live Chat, “emailed her colleagues at the end of June to let them know she’d be taking two days off to focus on her mental wellbeing.”

When her boss, CEO Ben Congleton, replied to the email, Parker was so surprised she decided to share his email on social media. Was her CEO berating her for taking time off? Criticising her decision to use sick days for her mental wellbeing? Quite the opposite! In his email, Congleton thanked Parker for the “reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health" and for helping to “cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”

This positive support from a CEO should serve as a benchmark for other leaders, encouraging them to support open, honest conversations about mental health in the workplace. Because when employees neglect the signs of physical and mental burnout, it has negative impacts on both their own lives and the people around them – including the workplace.

Let’s Talk About Being Burnt Out

Think you might be at risk of burning out?

While the term ‘burnout’ tends to get splashed around a bit, it’s more than just feeling a bit tired in the mornings, or having a tough week at work after partying all weekend. When someone is seriously burnt out, they are no longer able to function – at work, at home, or on a social level.

Burnout is a state of complete physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, all of which interfere with a person’s overall quality of life. It’s described here as a “total system breakdown, after prolonged, unmanageable stress, and emotional fatigue.” And this form of breakdown often leads to very serious health issues, that can take a long time to recover from.

Mental health issues, including anxiety, insomnia, hyper vigilance and depression are commonly linked to burnout. As are physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, adrenal exhaustion and chronic fatigue. If you’re constantly feeling run down, plagued by headaches and sore throats, and like you’re always running on empty, it could be time to start listening to your body.

Along with these physical ailments and overwhelming loss of energy, there can also be increased feelings of cynicism about the workplace – including negativity towards your colleagues, clients and daily tasks. Feeling irritable in general, withdrawing from friends and family, and no longer enjoying the things you once did are all signs that can point to burnout.

The Impacts of Burnout – for Employees and Organisations

It’s not just important for employees to pay attention to their mental and physical health; it’s also in the best interests of any business. Because when it comes to burnout, no one wins.

We’ve talked before about the impacts of employee burnout for organizations. When staff burn out, the business can also expect to suffer, from reduced productivity, higher employee turnover, financial burdens from absenteeism and the possibility of medical, legal, and insurance expenses.

And the impact it can have on an individual's career? Sadly, when people are no longer able to perform at the level they once did, particularly 'Type-A' people who are used to functioning at a high level, it can soon lead to doubts about their competence and skills. This is one of the most devastating effects of burnout, as it can seriously affect a person’s sense of self-worth and value, leading them deeper into stress and anxiety.

Who is Most at Risk of Burning Out?

It’s often those high-performing, Type-A employees who become burnt out, continuing to push themselves to exhaustion, even when they know something’s wrong. However, rather than recognise that they need to stop and rest, they tend to question their own abilities and work even harder – further intensifying the problem.

Women are also at higher risk of burnout, as they often continue to shoulder a great deal of the responsibilities and care-giving at home, while working the same hours as their male colleagues. The reality is that there is still a clear difference between the way women and men are treated in the workplace and the way in which they are valued. This gender disparity can even be seen in the way men and women are expected to dress for work, in corporate environments.

Traditional expectations of ‘professional’ attire see men able to wear the same outfits, day in and day out, while female workers are often criticised for doing the same. In response to this, we’re now seeing more women embracing the concept of a work ‘uniform’ to reduce the amount of time spent getting “ready” for work.

As Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global, says, “it might seem trivial, but it’s not ... there are real [productivity] issues at play. Women already bear the biggest cost of our culture of sleep-deprivation and burnout. And outdated notions of professional dress only add to that. Being able to spend only a few minutes getting ready versus an hour or two [gives men] a serious competitive advantage.”

What to Do About Burnout?

Fortunately, if you identify signs of burnout early enough, you can start taking steps towards better health and wellbeing.

Running on coffee or energy drinks to get through the day isn’t the solution; in fact, it will generally make adrenal fatigue even worse. So step away from the espresso machine.

If you’re already experiencing burnout, the thing you really need is rest. As this article in the Guardian says, “you need to stop, sleep and recover. Doing this takes time. It takes accepting that you have burnout, and that fighting it won’t help. It takes surrender, and readiness to rest.”

The best thing you can do is avoid burning out in the first place. That’s why it’s so important to take stock throughout the year, particularly when it’s been some time since your last break or day off. Employees need to be aware and conscious of the potential signs of burnout and take action before it starts impacting their physical and/or mental health. And managers need to lead by example, as we saw CEO Ben Congleton do, and encourage staff to take proactive steps towards their wellbeing.

The more open we are about discussing mental health in the workplace, the more we can help to reduce the stigma surrounding it. There shouldn't be any shame or guilt attached to taking time off –  taking care of yourself, in both your personal and professional life, is an incredibly strong and empowering thing to do.

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