May 19, 2017

Bouncing back from burnout

A silhouette of a person watching a sunset over a large body of water

It seems like everyone is always busy. Ask how someone is doing, and “Busy!” is usually the reply. Try to get extended family together for a visit, and it can be nearly impossible to find a free weekend in common.

With so many different things on our plates, it’s no wonder that more people are reporting feeling overwhelmed.

“It seems like full schedules and a hectic pace have become our new normal,” said UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. “But that can lead to significant problems for our health and well-being.”

Among those problems is that we can end up burning out.

What is burnout?

While many use the terms stressed and burned out interchangeably, Mirgain explains they are in fact different.

“Stress happens when we have too many tasks we’re doing and not enough inner resources available to tackle those tasks. We’re trying to do too much with too little,” she said. If some of those tasks are taken away, it can help relieve the feelings of stress.

Burnout, on the other hand, can occur when there’s no relief from that stress. It is the emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that develops when we’ve been experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time.

Mirgain likes to use the example of a frog and a pot of boiling water. “If a frog jumps into a boiling pot, it will jump out again. That’s what stress is like, you remove the stressor and things return back to normal," she said.

"However, if the frog is already in a pot when it comes to a boil, it will just stay in there and eventually die. That is what burnout is like and why it is problematic. As burnout increases, you begin to lack the energy to make necessary changes to flourish again.”

Burnout is a very gradual process and we might not even realize it is happening. Over time, we start to detach from work, lose motivation, become cynical and feel like there’s nothing left to give. And because our sense of normal changes so gradually, it can be difficult to realize a change is needed.

Common signs of burnout

Mirgain explains that common signs of burnout include:

Physical symptoms

  • Feeling fatigued

  • Getting sick frequently

  • Experiencing muscle pain or frequent headaches

  • Changing sleep habits or appetite

Emotional symptoms

  • Loss of motivation

  • Feeling detached or isolated

  • Feeling helpless, despondent, trapped, defeated

  • Feeling ineffective or a decreased sense of accomplishment

  • Having a negative outlook or feeling cynical

Behavioral symptoms

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities

  • Procrastinating

  • Feeling irritable and taking frustrations out on others

  • Using substances like alcohol or drugs to cope

  • Missing work or putting in less time (arriving late/leaving early)

Given that stress leads to burnout, it’s no wonder that one of the most common causes of it is related to work. According to a Gallup poll in 2012, 40 percent of U.S. workers were so stressed at work they felt burned out. Companies try to do more with less staff. Long hours, heavy workloads and the pressure to always remain connected can take a toll. And Mirgain said it’s affecting workers’ health.

“Researchers from Harvard and Stanford’s business schools estimated $125 billion to $190 billion annually was spent on healthcare costs related to work stress,” she said.

Feeling overworked and undervalued isn’t limited to the workplace. Raising children, caring for aging parents or a spouse and managing a household can all contribute to feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained and leave you questioning your abilities.

Bouncing back

While it can be difficult to recognize what’s going on, when we are able to recognize the signs of burnout we can begin to make needed changes. Mirgain offers a few suggestions:

Manage energy, not time

“How are you spending your energy, and what recharges it?” Mirgain said.

She suggests taking an inventory of what drains your energy and what helps refill it. When you identify those things, the next step is to make the refilling activities a priority. Limit exposure to negative people, turn off the news and stop checking your social feeds – limit the time you are spending in the activities that are draining. And make a point of doing nothing.

“Downtime is actually critical to our health,” Mirgain said. "But it can be very difficult because we feel guilty, even viscerally or deeply uncomfortable not being 'busy.' "

Mirgain likes to use the analogy of the oxygen mask when it comes to making time for ourselves. “Just like they say on airplanes, it’s important that you put your own mask on first so that you can take care of those around you. If you have nothing left to give, you can’t help others," she said.

She also offers affirmations to use when you start to feel uncomfortable with prioritizing yourself - "I’m deserving of my own time and attention" or "Taking care of myself makes me strong." But she advises it can help to work on making yourself a priority in small doses, “Do one of thing for joy and one of thing for self-care every day to help you refuel for the next day.”

Identify your priorities

It can be easy to forget what gives us a sense of purpose. Whether it’s the day-to-day same-ness, or a life change like retirement or a job loss, we can lose sight of what we find meaningful.

To help, Mirgain suggests looking for opportunities to grow in the roles you have, whether in your home life or at work. It can be reinvigorating to challenge yourself and focus on what you are learning or the skills you are developing. But there is a word of caution.

"Make sure not to have too much of your identity and time spent in just one role. This makes you vulnerable to burnout if you don’t have a life outside of work or don’t have interests other than parenting or caregiving," she said.

It can also help to rediscover the things you’re passionate about. Did you used to play an instrument or paint? Try picking it up again. Maybe there’s always something you’ve wanted to do but never made the time for. Do it. And say "no" once in a while so you can.

"We often fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people so we say 'Yes' to a request out of guilt or a sense of obligation. But listen to your body," said Mirgain.

She explains that often our bodies will give us clues into what's right for us and what's not. If you experience tension and a knot in your stomach at the thought of doing something, that’s usually a good sign it’s something to say "no" to.

It is possible to bounce back from burnout with some time and patience, and to remember we can protect against it happening again. The important thing is that we make ourselves a priority when we need to – it will ultimately help us care for those we love as well.