Burnout Survival Kit: Everything You Need To Prevent And Cope With It
The heart of burnout is exhaustion—feeling so drained by our day-to-day work that we have nothing left to give. In a post-COVID world—where the new normal includes an increase in stress and uncertainty—the dangers of burnout are even more present.
Burnout is generally classified by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. It can take huge tolls on our productivity, our willingness to connect and our general health. But what does the science have to say? In this article, we'll cover the types of burnout as well as practical steps for coping with and managing it.
Who's this written for
You're feeling burnt out—or getting close
You're worried about a friend or co-worker
You're a manager and lead a team
A little history
Coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, "burnout" is a relatively new term. Since its inception, we're starting to see a rise of research as it makes its way onto science's radar. In 2019, the World Health Organisation added burnout as a "occupational phenomenon" in the latest International Classification of Diseases.
Three types of burnout
According to the latest science, researchers have defined three types of burnout.
In this study by researchers from the University of Zaragoza in Spain, they explored three burnout profiles to help us understand how people cope with burnout. In their research, they claim that how we cope with burnout can also describe the type of burnout. Here are the types:
The frenetic: When you frantically work harder when you have an overloaded plate. The frenetic worker is willing to risk their health and personal life in pursuit of ambition, and copes by taking on more despite being overwhelmed.
The under-challenged: When you feel disengaged from your work because it doesn't stimulate you. The under-challenged worker tends to be ridden with boredom, a lack of passion or little room for growth. These can lead to feelings of frustration.
The worn-out: When you feel physically and mentally tired from your workplace. The worn-out workers tend to feel like they're not acknowledged adequately or like they have a lack of control over their work.
So with different types of burnout on the loose, it's important to note that burnout is insidious and in some ways contagious. In the words of the researchers,
The frenetic subtype would complain about the organisational hierarchy, which imposes limits to his or her high ambition; The underchallenged subtype would express distress about the routine nature of his or her obligations, which would hinder personal development; the worn-out subtype would be annoyed by the monitoring systems, owing to his or her negligent behaviour.
How it affects the organisation:
The perception of continuous complaints by colleagues could increase the emotional exhaustion experienced and contribute to the development of negative attitudes, creating a type of contagion mechanism for spreading the syndrome to other colleagues in the workplace...
So how can we learn to spot it? And how do we stop it from sweeping through teams like wild fire?
Three signs of burnout
Learning to recognise burnout is one of first ways we can defend ourselves. In her book 'How to Be Yourself', psychologist Ellen Hendriksen names three big signs of burnout to watch out for:
Emotional exhaustion: "a sense of being drained and unmotivated and tired, both physically and psychologically. It gives you the sense of moving through mud."
Depersonalisation: “a substitution of characteristics for an actual person.” For example, "a psychologist might refer to a client as ‘that OCD guy.’” This when we stop seeing the people we work with as people, and start to see them as burdens.
Losing the ability to focus: “[It’s] basically taking more time and energy to accomplish less,” she says. “If you’re noticing, ‘I’m working hard and really long hours but accomplishing a lot less than I used to,’ that’s a red flag.”
On that note, let's talk about the role we play in burnout.
The danger of being passive
In the long term, the key factor for developing the burnout syndrome seems to be the degree of passivity that the subject acquires. — Researchers from University of Zaragoza in Spain
Looking at the science, it suggests that passivity—accepting what happens without actively responding—can contribute to burnout in the big picture. Passive behaviour can include things like: not speaking up when workloads become overwhelming, neglecting self-care to create time for work, saying yes when you're at full capacity etc. These can have harmful long-term effects.
In saying that, not all burnout happens because we're passive. Sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. There are deadlines to meet. The leaders are overwhelmed. The team are short-staffed. In these situations, it might be helpful to run our options through second-order thinking. And remember: when it comes to preventing burnout we always have options. Let's get into it!
So here are some strategies we can all use:
Check your vitals: Step back and look at where you're spending your time. How much are you sleeping? Are you drinking enough water? Are eating food that's good for you? How much screen-time are you having? Are there any bad habits that have crept in? Checking your vital needs is a great first step to see what you might need to adjust.
Identify your needs: After you've checked your vitals, it's time to look at your psychological needs. These are the specific things that you need to feel good and motivated, and they look different for everyone. e.g. If you're a social person, you might need to socialise with friends every second day! While if you're less social, you might need to schedule more quiet time. Is there anything you wish you were doing but you aren't? You can use the burnout survival guide below to think about your needs.
Reduce emotional exhaustion: Two effective strategies for gaining control over our emotions are reappraisal and distraction. Reappraisal involves changing the way we think about situations "This situation sucks" → "This is a great opportunity to learn how to X". Distraction might involve going for a walk to calm your system before addressing anything upsetting.
Fight pandemic fatigue: Three strategies for gaining control in this time: limit media exposure, practice mindfulness and move your body. Limit your media exposure to one time a day so you're not absorbed by it. For mindfulness, try to ground yourself in the present. If you find it difficult, do some breath-work: Breathe in for 4 secs, hold for 2 and breathe out for 6. Exhaling for longer signals to your nervous system to calm down. Last but not least: move your body for at least 15mins a day. Exercise is proven to help elevate mood!
Create a burnout survival plan: Now might seem like a strange time to create a burnout survival plan. But with so much going on, it's better to be prepared! In this survival plan, you'll think about your needs and write down what you're currently doing vs. things you want to try. You'll also create an emergency plan!
Fill out your burnout survival plan digitally or print it out:
Burnout is an insidious force. It can sweep through a space like wild fire, and leave you feeling unmotivated, exhausted and frustrated. Take action against it and build your plan!