The Burnout Syndrome: What can we do about it?

Career Guide November 14, 2018

The Burnout Syndrome: What can we do about it?

Even in the best environments, things tend to crash and burn including people. Sure, we all want to succeed and tick off the boxes in our list but while it appears that the hardest working and incessant workers get the best of the deal, it may not always be the case. Everyone is at risk of burnout even the most highly engaged and productive people.

The burnout phase

We’re wired to believe that pay and contracted rewards are enough to compensate us for all the hours and work we put in. Sure, the world is obsessing seemingly with overachievers, tech wonders and company titans who achieved success early in their work lives, but that “wonder” alone has led to a highly competitive market. As technology progresses, the world is always on the lookout for the next disruption with a lot of people wanting a piece of the pie. We have this connotation that to be considered part of the elite or the successful – we must be swamped with work and keep ourselves busy.

Living a hectic life is not the way to go. Working with these standards – intentionally or not – can eventually lead to burnout. But how do you know if you have already burned out? And more importantly, how do you recover from it?

Most people don’t realise that burnout comes out in many forms. Some may feel just “out of it” without realising that they’ve reached the burnout phase. According to the Harvard Business Review, just like any medical condition, spotting it earlier is important as they can eventually cause other health problems.

  • Exhaustion – loss of energy
  • Cynicism – loss of enthusiasm
  • Inefficacy – loss of capacity to perform and even self confidence
Signs of burnout

You don’t have to be suffering from all three to experience serious consequences, even one can have adverse effects. Other signs of burnout you should look for:

  • Signs of physical exhaustion like headaches and muscle aches
  • Often ill
  • Feelings of being overwhelming and the perception that your efforts are futile
  • Neglecting personal needs
  • Procrastination
  • Ill temperedness
  • Difficulty maintaining routines or regular self-care like eating healthy or exercising regularly

If not addressed properly, some people are left with the choice to leave their job or just simply check out from their roles. The latter can even prompt the person to stop completely caring about his or her career. Avoiding the grave consequences requires attacking/addressing the root cause of burnout.

So what causes burnout?

Put simply, poor collaboration can often be the primary culprit. When teams don’t communicate effectively, members don’t pull their weight and bottlenecks keep cropping up, causing delays, then someone can eventually feel the toll. Additionally, when work demands exceed your capacity to handle them then burnout may just be on the horizon.

According to a study from Wrike, despite the multitude of communication channels now available, inefficient collaboration ranks as the leading cause of stress in the workplace. Participants of the study even stated that they use up to 16 applications in day to complete their work. Not to mention the number of hours managers and employees alike spend on meetings and responding to emails.

It may also have to do with our concept of passion. Yes, it’s fine to be passionate about work. It can fuel us to overcome obstacles and achieve a lot of things but not all forms of passion are adaptive – some can be detrimental. Robert J. Vallerand’s Dualistic Model of Passion suggests, there are two flavours of passion: harmonious and obsessive. People with harmonious passion have a sense of control of their work and how it interacts with the rest of their life. They understand when to disengage or turn off their working switch. Their professional life also does not interfere with the rest of their life. They don’t think about work constantly and they don’t feel guilty if they are not working.

Obsessive passion is another story. People with obsessive passion believe that their work as the passion that represents them. They have the uncontrollable urge to work all the time which also interferes – at some point – with the rest of their lives.

However, aren’t we taught that working constantly is almost synonymous with working hard? However, Scott Barry Kaufman argues: “Many great works appear to have come about due to an obsessive focus on work to the exclusion of all else. The research suggests this may be a myth. It’s important to distinguish between flexible and rigid forms of persistence”.

He also adds: “Those with obsessive passion rigidly persist even when it’s no longer sensible to do so. Those with harmonious passion are much more flexible and are ultimately more successful. This may explain why so many child prodigies fizzle out later in life — regardless of their talent. By being obsessively attached their domain, they are increasing their chances of burning out”.

Managing burnout in the workplace

If you feel like someone you know or you’re on the verge of exhaustion – perhaps even there already – here are some things you can do to address the burnout:

  • Be proactive about it – you’ll see the signs and the best way to address is to be proactive about it. Ask people for help, delegate, stop/reflect then reprioritise. Don’t forget about self-care.
  • Regroup and prioritise – you can easily lose track of things when burned out. It’s best to write everything you need to do and are currently working on. Partner with your superior or a teammate to check which ones should be prioritised first. This will add some order despite your confusion.
  • Invest in your energy – feeling overwhelmed will tire you out. You need to recharge by doing activities outside your work. Try to engage in regular cardio or exercise and eat better. Your workout doesn’t have to be complicated immediately.
  • Find your inspiration – dig deeper into why you feel burned out. Think back to the things that engage your heart and mind. Sometimes, all we need is to stop.
The Art of Doing Nothing

We were made to believe that idleness is the antithesis of freedom. However, it is not the case.

According to Brian O’ Connor’s piece in Time magazine : “Leisure today is, for many people, a glimpse at what it would be like to do nothing for more than a few hours. It is — or at least it used to be — downtime, lazing away, forgetting the bothers of the workplace”.

We use our allowance of paid vacation to recharge the batteries, address some level of emotional well-being… and gear up for a return to work. Leisure, in this way, is incorporated into the world of work. It is not a subversion of it

What many people don’t realise is that doing nothing can be an avenue for growth. It doesn’t just recharge you or spare you from work. It allows you to look inward because there is no nagging feeling that you are doing less than what you are supposed to do. There is no activity to distract you, therefore you can concentrate more on yourself.

Peter Economy writes: “When you have the time to think about yourself, you will inevitably return to your obligations refreshed and work calmly and exponentially more productively”.

Of course, try not to overdo doing nothing as it can also get boring. Allocate enough time like a week quarterly or even a month or two per year on time off. Famous financier J.P. Morgan used to say he would insist taking time off for two months annually. Succeeding in business and life, it seems, is developing the ability to feel comfortable with just being. The time off can offer you insight on where your true passion lies and how best you can reorganise your life.

Take a step back, breathe, reaching your full potential takes time.