Burnout!

I have been under a lot of pressure lately. It has caused that I have lost balance with life. I never thought I might be “burning-out”; because I thought I was dealing with my stress. I was quite surprised to find out that burnout does not mean you are too stressed.

I decided to randomly search on the term “burnout” to learn more about it. After a few articles, that I have read, this is my evaluation of myself against some of the information that I have found on the topic and my conclusion of whether I need to act on it or not.

What is it?

Apparently it is the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. This is interesting as I have been definitely suffering from diminished interest for an extended period of time. I have been complaining that work is frustratingly boring and that there is no point to it. This feeling was aggravated by the MBA, although I did not think it was a sign of burnout.

There are apparently six work life areas that need to be in balance. Workload, Control, Reward, Community, Fairness, Values. Now, I understand that balance for each individual would mean something different. I feel that for me; workload is high; control is low; reward is near non-existent; community is low; I feel that not much is fair; my values are adequate. Seeing it from this perspective scares me a little, let us continue.

The difference between stress and burnout

Stress is generally too much pressure that demands much from us physically and psychologically. Apparently stressed people can imagine that if they get things under control they will feel better.

Burnout, on the other hand, is where an individual feels empty, devoid of motivation, and is beyond caring. People are generally aware of being under stress and tend to not notice when burnout happens. I think that this might be my case. I feel that I might be burning up and only realising it now.

The following table is from the article from the online helpguide:

Stress vs. Burnout
Stress Burnout Evaluation
Characterized by over-engagement Characterized by disengagement I am definitely disengaged with many things lately.
Emotions are over-reactive Emotions are blunted I am known to not over-react. My emotions are slightly blunted.
Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces helplessness and hopelessness I am definitely not hyperactive and I do sometimes feel like things are hopeless.
Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression I recently had a discussion with my girlfriend about being detached.
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
May kill you prematurely May make life seem not worth living

Causes

Apparently, anyone who feels overworked and undervalued is at risk for burnout. I am sure there are a lot of people that feel they fall into this category. Strangely, it seems that if you are burnt out, you will feel that you are a part of this category. I definitely feel undervalued, especially after the restructure our firm has just experienced and the lessor role I have had to adopt, because of the perceived workforce shortage. According to some of the research I have been doing for the MBA, this has breached my psychological contract with the firm I work with.

Wikipedia listed a cause as continual peer, customer, and superior surveillance. Firstly this implies that you need to have a little freedom to do your own thing. Secondly it would imply that constant surveillance is a bad thing to practice when managing, I wonder what effect an open plan office will have with this respect. I share an office with my direct supervisor where he can see everything I am doing all day long.

The helpguide article listed a few other factors that contribute to burnout. Lifestyle, being one, which to me seems to have completely changed this year. What you do with your downtime, what downtime? I do not even own a T.V. as I have little time for it. The article lists the following three different areas and the causes related to each them.

Work-related causes of burnout
Cause Evaluation
Feeling like you have little or no control over your work. I feel that I have little choice as to what I have been assigned and that I have little choice on how to do it. I have been forced to use technologies that I do not believe in and that are just plain wrong.
Lack of recognition or rewards for good work. Definitely a problem. I do not feel any recognition for my work and never receive any rewards. All I know is that I am the only one at the company that can do a lot of what I do.
Unclear or overly demanding job expectations. I took this job knowing it was not very demanding. The idea was to make it an opportunity whilst doing my MBA. It has turned into a huge problem for me and everything is unclear. I have specs for 6month projects, come to me as one liner’s in emails.
Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging. Defiantly the case here. The work does not challenge me in any way and it is monotonous. I have been forced back into legacy technology and when I get the chance of a new project I am forced into how I should tackle it, after much debate.
Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment. Yeah, I am unsure I have ever experienced a chaotic, high pressure environment.

Lifestyle causes of burnout

Cause Evaluation
Working too much, without enough time for relaxing and socializing I have been out once this year for a drink with friends. I have really dropped the ball when it comes to socializing.
Being expected to be too many things to too many people. The only pressures I feel here are the ones I generate myself. I feel that I need to make time to see people after I have not seen them for extended periods.
Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others I have recently done an assignment where I have realised that I do not ask help of others. This is something that I definitely need to work on.
Not getting enough sleep I definitely do not have a problem here. I think it might be the only thing keeping me this side of sane.
Lack of close, supportive relationships I think that I do not allow people to support me. I am sure that I do not know how much I need their support.
Personality traits can contribute to burnout
Cause Evaluation
Perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough A recent psychological profile mentioned that I have these tendencies.
Pessimistic view of yourself and the world I do not perceive myself as an optimist. I have in the past seen myself as pessimistic, although now I am unsure.
The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others I definitely have the need to be in control, according to my psychological profile, although I will delegate to others if only to get results.
High-achieving, Type A personality Apparently, most MBA students have this type of personality. I do not feel that I should be classified into this category. I do not have to achieve high. I just need to achieve.

Identification

You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

Warning signs and symptoms of burnout

Burnout is a gradual process. The signs and symptoms of burnout are subtle at first, but they get worse as time goes on. In an attempt to prevent a major breakdown, I should look into the following early warning signs.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout
  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time 
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot 
  • Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches 
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits 
EMOTIONAL SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF BURNOUT
  • Sense of failure and self-doubt 
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated 
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world 
  • Loss of motivation 
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook 
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment 
BEHAVIOURAL SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF BURNOUT
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities 
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope 
  • Isolating yourself from others 
  • Taking out your frustrations on others 
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done 
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early 

Phases

These are the apparent phases that you would experience before burnout.

  1. A compulsion to prove oneself 
  2. Working harder 
  3. Neglecting one’s own needs 
  4. Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress) 
  5. Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed) 
  6. Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent) 
  7. Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur) 
  8. Behavioural changes become obvious to others 
  9. Depersonalization (life becomes a series of mechanical functions) 
  10. Inner emptiness 
  11. Depression 
  12. Burnout syndrome 

I feel like I am definitely around 8 or 9 out of the 12. That is 66-75% of the way there.

Preventing burnout

From what I have seen above, it looks like I will need to apply the following tips to prevent my burnout from becoming a full-blown breakdown. They might help me get my life back into balance.

Burnout prevention tips
  • Start the day with a relaxing ritual. Maybe I should start the day doing a blog entry or spend 15 minutes doing something that inspires me, maybe listen to something or read something non-work related.
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. I need to really get into a routine for exercise. I have packed my car with my gym clothes, now all I need to do is actually go. I have been using my recent cold as an excuse.
  • Set boundaries. I find that even though I say no at work, it is as if they do not care. I feel like I have little to no control of my work environment and need to find a way to gain control. I know I am going to leave after my MBA, maybe even before, and work knows this too. It is a difficult situation.
  • Take a daily break from technology. I am not sure I can do this. My work is technology related. I can only take off from technology during lunch, where I think I should be more effective with my time in relaxing.
  • Nourish your creative side. This blog has nothing to do with work and is my way of doing something creative; also it is a means of an outlet.
  • Learn how to manage stress. I feel like I have control over my stress, but as I have seen with this process, I need to research it more.

Hopefully this post is helping me RECOGNISE the warning signs I have with respect to burnout. Hopefully I can start to REVERSE the process by seeking support. Hopefully some exercise will help my RESILIENCE towards stress.

Recovering from burnout

I might be underplaying how close I am to burnout. I mean I never even thought I was this close to it until today. I can still be unconsciously denying it.

Burnout recovery strategy #1: Slow down

What would I be able to cut back on and take a break from? I wish I could say the MBA, maybe it would be possible to rely more on my group and reduce the workload I have taken on. I have already started becoming very lax at work, not sure it would be wise to drop the ball any more than what I already am. I have 4 exams coming up in the next 3 weeks. I have taken off from work for study time, although I can put in more leave if I need to get time to rest, reflect and heal.

Burnout recovery strategy #2: Get support

I need to be aware that isolating myself from friends and family is not the way to protect the little energy I have left. Wow… This is a hard one to accept. I need to identify my feelings and share them with another person. It will relieve the burden I am currently experiencing.

Burnout recovery strategy #3: Re-evaluate your goals and priorities

I have recently done an assignment that had the intention to get us to redefine ourselves, although now that I think about it, it might have had a negative effect on this aspect of things. I have become a lot more despondent after that assignment (100 pages). I think that I should actually sit down tonight and do some proper self-reflection with this new information.

Acknowledging my losses

I have not thought of losses in the following context before:

Burnout brings with it many losses, which can often go unrecognized. Unrecognized losses trap a lot of your energy. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional control to keep yourself from feeling the pain of these losses. When you recognize these losses and allow yourself to grieve them, you release that trapped energy and open yourself to healing.

One of the examples listed that rings true with me, is the one of identity loss that originally came with my job. I was consulting to my current firm, which was a powerful role. Then they employed me and put me in charge of doing research. I really enjoyed that and it was quite invigorating to be able to learn new things. Now with the recent restructuring I feel like my position is meaningless and that I have lost my identity at work. Wow, never have I thought of it in this way. It might be the cause of me wanting to leave so strongly and the reason for putting extra effort and time into the MBA. I definitely need to acknowledge what I have lost. I am still unconsciously fighting for what I had. I am unsure on how to deal with this though.

The MBA process has definitely caused a serious loss of friends, fun and a sense of community. I have been relying on family more to fulfil this role. I think that this might be wrong and need to take some action to actually amend some of my relationships. My friends are at least understanding of where I am and what I need to do, but just like I have underestimated the time I have previously spent with them and how much that means to me, I am sure they do this too. Although the article on helpguide suggests that I should just accept this loss which is difficult to do.

I need to definitely accept the loss I experience with my sense of control and the meaning and purpose that make work worthwhile. As some people have suggested, I should find something else that does it for me.

Action Items

  • Express my needs at work, not just my personal issues that I have with what I am currently assigned to.
  • Express my needs to my family and how they can assist me in those.
  • I need to schedule quality time off and this being time off from both MBA and work.
  • I need to make time to see my friends again and maybe have a boy’s night out.
  • I need to find new value in the current position I have at work.
  • I should also start the process of looking for new work. I was hoping to do this during my final year of the MBA as it would be foolish to do it whilst under the pressure I currently face, but it might not be the wiser option to leave it till then.
  • I should get my friends and family to help me more. I need to acknowledge at work, as well, that I need help.
  • I need to start using the gym, as it is winter and I will not get to ride my mountain bike much or get to run at the beach.
  • I need to wake up earlier and do something relaxing in the morning to start my day. Maybe start the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

Conclusion

Maybe I am closer to burnout than what I had previously thought or could have imagined. This post might be spawned by my recent spurt with influenza, which I am still trying to get over, adding to the pool of causes. I feel like it might have been one of the last things to push me closer to the edge. I hope I will be doing another personal post in a few weeks’ time which is in a more positive light.

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnout_(psychology)

http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm