Are you feeling the strain of the juggle? Too many balls in the air and not enough ‘me time’? Stressed out at work and at home? You could be headed toward career burnout. Psychologist Clea Wallage shares her tips for spotting the warning signs and reigniting your spark.
In 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It relates specifically to an occupational context and is characterised by three things:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
- reduced professional efficacy1
In a 2018 study by Gallup2 of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% of respondents reported feeling burned out often or always (that’s one in four people!) and 44% reported feeling burned out some of the time. They also found that burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take sick days and 23% more likely to end up in the emergency room.
My journey to career burnout
Ironically, while I was working in a job that I loved, I was one of these burned-out employees.
At the time of my burnout I was working in a part-time senior leadership role (four days a week) in an organisation in Australia that I had been with for 11 years. During this time I’d been successful in building a high performing and well-respected team and personal profile, and climbing the career ladder. I had experienced four pregnancies resulting in three gorgeous children. My boss and workplace were incredibly supportive, allowing me to dictate my return to work terms after each pregnancy, providing flexibility for me to work from home, and allowing me to choose my work hours. Despite all this flexibility and an enviable support network, I was experiencing stress at work, was struggling to find quality time with my loved ones and wasn’t prioritising my own wellbeing.
The symptoms I experienced (which are textbook burnout symptoms) included:
- Brain fog – as thick as stew – clouding my every decision.
- Severe exhaustion, no matter how long I slept.
- Terrible digestive issues, back pain and chronic headaches.
- Confidence levels at rock bottom, constant self-doubt and feeling like a failure.
- A complete loss of motivation and satisfaction in activities I once enjoyed.
- An intense desire to escape, but feeling trapped and helpless.
Suffice to say, it wasn’t fun. I was completely overwhelmed and finally reached the point where I realised something significant needed to change which resulted in me proactively exiting the workforce and taking a 12-month career break.
How burnout happens
While somewhat confronting, it’s important to be aware that burnout is not something that just happens to you. Burnout is something you actively participate in creating.
Herbert Freudenberger, the psychologist who termed burnout, states that it is “to deplete oneself, to exhaust one’s physical and mental resources, to wear oneself out by excessively striving to reach some unrealistic expectation imposed by one’s self or by the values of society”3.
While chronic stress is linked to all burnout experiences (which can be the result of toxic work environments, a lack of recognition and reward, being overloaded with work, or even a loss of passion for what you do), it is the addition of other psychological factors that makes burnout more likely. Personality traits such as high-achieving, perfectionistic, pessimistic, a desire to be in control and an inability to say no to others are all further risk factors for burnout. If you associate with any of these, you’re much more likely to push yourself to the point of exhaustion, while at the same time de-prioritise your own self-care.
There’s nothing wrong with working hard and having ambitious goals, but this needs to be counterbalanced with effective stress management and providing yourself with the rest you require to recharge.
Spotting the warning signs
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, it develops over a period of significant stress coupled with a lack of prioritisation for your own wellbeing. In order to spot the warning signs you need to:
- Consider your current situation: are you experiencing more stress at work? Do you feel overwhelmed with everything you need to get done? Have you been experiencing a toxic relationship with co-workers or your manager? Are you questioning your passion for what you do?
- Get in tune with yourself: are you someone who is naturally more likely to push yourself excessively at the risk of your own health? Are you constantly striving for more?
- Listen to your body: what physical symptoms are you experiencing? Are these normal? Have they been getting worse for some time?
- Reflect on your behaviour and lifestyle patterns: are you working more and prioritising yourself less? Are you more irritable? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you maintaining regular eating patterns? Are you drinking too much?
- Listen to the people you trust: what are your friends and family telling you about your behaviour? What are your healthcare professionals recommending?
Preventing career burnout
If you’re experiencing more stress than usual, it’s essential to start prioritising self-care and focusing on stress management.
- Prioritise some time for yourself. For the next month, book in at least four things a week that will recharge your energy levels. Start small. This might include meditating, reading, sleeping in, spending time in nature, light exercise or simply focused attention on your breathing.
- Remember that stress is your own response to a stressful situation. Spend some time writing down what stressful situations you’re currently experiencing at work and home. Consider how you might relook at these situations to minimise your stress. If you’re unable to reframe your stress response, you may need to ask for help from your manager or HR, or distance yourself from the stressful situation.
Acting in your best interests
If you’re currently experiencing burnout you need to take urgent action. You need to put yourself first and prioritise some serious ‘you time’. This means detaching yourself from the world, wrapping yourself up in cotton wool and allowing your mind and body to recover.
For me, the only way to do this was to cut something significant out of my life. If this is not possible or desired, you need to lock in some serious, and consistent, chunks of time for yourself to recharge. If you can’t find this time in your schedule, it’s a non-negotiable: you have to make it.
Beyond this, prioritising sleep, good nutrition, gentle exercise and finding yourself a good support network are also essential. Remember, if you want to function at your best you need to be at your best, which requires an investment in you.
Written by Clea Wallage, a mother of three young children, a psychologist and until recently, a senior manager in the corporate world. Clea is a self-proclaimed high achiever and perfectionist who pushed herself to the point of burnout. She is now an advocate of supporting others to shift from a life of stress and unhappiness to one where they are thriving. Follow her on Instagram here.
1 World Health Organisation, Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases
2 Gallup, Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes
3 H. J. Freudenberger and G. Richelson, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980), p. 16.