The real problem with burnout is that it’s a ‘boiling frog’ issue.

We all know the story of how you can put a frog into a cold pan of water, slowly heat it and the frog doesn’t try to escape. It’s only when the water begins to boil that the frog realizes there’s something wrong but, by then, it’s too late and the inevitable happens.

With burnout the symptoms often amass slowly over time, we don’t really notice them or often put them down to being “a bit stressed” or “a bit tired” and that they’ll soon pass. They don’t, they quietly accumulate over time.

One of my first signs of burnout was having constantly disturbed sleep. Waking up at night and ruminating (endless revolving thoughts focused on the same worry). ‘It’ll pass’ I thought, ‘it’s just because I have a lot on at the minute’. And it didn’t.

Two years later I was hospitalized at 3.00am with what the doctors believed was ventricular fibrillation or arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), I knew it was nothing more than the culmination of 12 years worth of relentless stress.

So I share this article, so that firstly you recognize that you may be burning out, secondly that there is no shame in this (frankly I consider it a typical outcome of very driven, caring or ethical people) and thirdly, that if you thought you were going bonkers, you’re not. What is happening to you is the brain and bodies’ natural response to the over production of certain chemicals in the brain that can be corrosive to your well-being over time.

My goal with this post is to reduce the number of sufferers by allowing you to simply, quickly and easily identify when you are beginning to “burn out” and nip it in the bud there and then.

Now, just so I am clear; my definition of burning out is the ‘physical and psychological symptoms of exhaustion that are visible at an early stage, build cumulatively and lead often to more serious issues such as anxiety, mild depression or worse’. Psychologists describe burn out as ‘a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness.’

One of the significant, underlying problems we all face is illustrated in the diagram below. Interestingly stress in and of itself, is not all bad. In fact science has shown that our bodies and brains are designed to ‘grow’ through stress. For example, in a gym we use weights to ‘stress’ our muscles, tearing small fibres and allowing new fibres to grow in the recovery process. As a consequence we build leaner, stronger, fitter bodies.

Our brain is no different to the rest of the body according to research by Daniela Kaufer and Elizabeth Kirby at UC Berkley “some amounts of stress are good to push you to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance”.

Appropriate stress helps us learn, builds resilience (according to research done with Navy Seals), and helps us to be more creative and so on. However if we look at the top red line in the diagram titled “All of Us”, you can see that it illustrates the sad fact that rarely do we take time out for adequate recovery. In many cases we are treating our brains to a 14 hour workout every day without any recovery whatsoever.

It is a recipe for guaranteed health problems. As our business lives get busier, staff demands continue, family commitments continue, technology interferes with our days constantly and we ‘switch off’ using TV, alcohol and drugs the physical and psychological issues compound and compound.

So how do we spot whether we, or a member of staff are showing signs of burning out, the precursor to more serious mental or physical health issues?

I have split the signs into two main groups using three main sources, Beyond Blue, Psychology Today, and the Book, Brain Fuel Depletion, written by a veterinarian who suffered and overcame major depression.

Firstly, Psychological Signs:

1. Inappropriate Anxiety, feeling anxious without an obvious cause or worse, panic attacks

2. Becoming emotionally remote, removing oneself from others

3. Endless rumination, forgetfulness, procrastination or development of phobias

4. Loss of judgement/confidence, loss of interest/pleasure

5. Feelings of paranoia, failure, helplessness or worthlessness

6. Angry outbursts or you’re easily irritated and increasingly cynical

7. Highly emotional (example: you can’t stop crying at certain movies)

8. Increased perception of pain

Secondly, Physical Signs:

9. Skin rashes

10. Yawning too much, breathing difficulties, hyperventilating

11. Heart palpitations, racing heart

12. Feeling tired all of the time

13. Poor concentration, change in appetite, altered libido

14. Tension in the solar plexus (tight chest), muscle tightness, unsteady gate

15. Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope

16. Poor sleep or insomnia

17. Depleted immune system (you get sick easily)

This is not an exhaustive list but it does contain some of the key indicators that illustrate that you’re pushing yourself to your edge and you need to do something about it.

I talked to a veterinarian recently who listened to a webinar I did on a similar subject. He told me he could tick 80% of these symptoms, shared this with his practice partner (who had been giving him a hard time for not pulling his weight), went to see his doctor and was promptly diagnosed as suffering from depression.

So what should you do if you are recognizing some symptoms in yourself or others? Again the seven points below are not exhaustive but are powerful and work.

1. Seek help from someone you really trust or a professional mental health expert. If you are talking to a staff member be sensitive, listen and then strongly suggest they talk to a professional who can help. Most people are just relieved that someone has noticed they are struggling.

2. Take 15 minute breaks each day every 90 to 120 minutes. This is all about managing your energy and giving your brain recovery time. Do something other than WORK in that break, read a book, dance to music, juggle balls, anything but work. This is based on Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s research in their terrific book “The Power of Full Engagement”.

3. When you get home put your work phone away in a drawer. Everything can wait until tomorrow. If you have a boss who insists that you’re available 24/7 find another boss.

4. Ensure you have something you enjoy booked in to your weekend. A ‘restorative activity’ whether it’s playing a game of tennis, playing with your children or making a dress, it turns out that doing an activity that’s interesting is more beneficial than simply relaxing.

5. Organize a holiday. And yes, I know how difficult this can be, but you MUST look after yourself. Long weekends are terrific so take a few. Likewise you must ensure your staff are happy too and take regular holidays. The evidence is compelling that productivity goes up when people take regular breaks.

6. Exercise certainly will help in getting your brain happy and healthy again (read John Ratey’s excellent book ‘Spark’).

7. Review your work. If your work or business holds no meaning to you, can you reinterpret your situation to give you a greater sense of meaning and purpose? It is critical that you re-evaluate your situation. Life is too short. If you’re doing something you hate, that demands more from you than the energy that you can give it, you must make changes.

I’ll finish by saying this. Being selfless is potentially bad for your health (read Les Barbanell, a psychologist and author of ‘Removing The Mask Of Kindness’.) There is a big difference between service and servitude and if you are at the beck and call of your business, your team or your customers, you are in a position of servitude. The pressure on you therefore is never ending and the stress will continue to mount.

Being in a position of ‘Service’, ensures you honour yourself first and foremost. You understand that without your skills, passion and expertise there is no ‘business’. You ensure you are looking after yourself, that you are actively reducing your stress levels and deliberately pursuing interests outside of work that keep you healthy and balanced.

So stay healthy, be happy and look after yourself, your business will thrive because of it.


Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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