By Erich Schoeman (Clinical Psychologist; Executive Coach)
Matters of the Soul (www.mattersofthesoul.org or www.sakevdsiel.org)
6 - 7 minute read
Burnout is something that is akin to this generation and close to my own heart. Several years ago I started my clinical practice, full of vigour and at an alarming pace. Slowly my emotional and physical resources were waning. After a few years of self neglect I found myself at a low point. It was a two year journey of recovery to get to my new normal, a place where I did things different from before.
During the process I learnt a number of valuable lessons, one of which was that I failed to notice the signs of approaching burnout. In this article I attempt to assist you to recognise these in advance.
We tend to be passionate about what we do, run hard and fast after goals, fulfill multiple roles and juggle many responsibilities, all the while trying to become the best we can be. This is great, even noble, but unfortunately comes at a cost. This cost should be offset by deposits into your life to enable you to run the race with endurance.
Here are 10 signs that burnout is on your horizon coupled with 10 solutions:
1. Extreme fatigue
This is the single most important sign that is indicative of running low on fuel. It involves daily physical and mental fatigue. A few days off work doesn’t do it. Even moderate exercise can leave you exhausted. You find that everyday tasks require more effort than usual.
Solution: Take immediate action to rest. Ideally it should be between 6 weeks and 3 months. Get entirely away from your work context if possible. If not, delegate and rest where you can. Do not make sudden, permanent life-changing decisions like resigning during this time.
2. Lack of control
When you are in a job that leaves you with limited ability to influence decisions in order to positively change your situation, it could increase the experience of frustration and powerlessness - that could lead to burnout e.g. a lack of control over resources, schedules or projects.
Do you have adequate freedom to manage your time?
Solution: Address this asap with management and/or rethink your schedule. Fit enough clean space into your weekly, monthly and yearly schedule to bring refreshment and balance.
3. Frustration and cynicism
When we are in a difficult situation for a long time, we tend to feel greatly frustrated. We build up resentment against our situation and the people involved. This may lead to cynicism and could even end with depression.
Do you experience these and other negative feelings more often than not when it comes to your job?
Solution: Determine the origin of the frustration. What is keeping you from where you want to be? What can you do as a first step to address this now? Try to forgive others and rather spend your emotional energy on proactive problem-solving than reactive resenting.
4. Loss of motivation
Being motivated takes, and gives, mental energy. When exhaustion and frustration are present for a long time and your emotional resources are low, motivating yourself to keep going becomes hard.
You might find that you increasingly battle to give what the work requires and only want to get away or fight it out. As your motivation goes, your interest and effort reduce and along with it the success you experience.
Solution: Try to motivate yourself to do only the next thing. You handle this one day at a time. As you apply your strategy to deal with the problems, you will systematically make progress and gain the motivation lost.
5. Frequent illnesses
When your body has been in the fast lane for long, you tend to run on adrenaline. In time your immune system suffers and you start to battle illnesses more frequently.
Coupled with a lack of sleep, our bodies tire from fighting off the invaders.
Solution: Get professional help from a dietician to assist you with a healthy and balanced diet and supplements that will boost your immune system. Set realistic goals that will be achievable with enough time to implement the changes.
6. Strained relationships with other people
Depending on your preferred style of conflict management, when burned out you either engage in conflict more often than usual (and with a reduced finesse I might add!) or you withdraw and avoid confrontation altogether. I used to withdraw from conflict at work but then become irritable and oversensitive at home.
Take time out before talking, think the situation over and discuss with someone else you trust. Then decide to address the urgent and important matters. As you do, you will feel relief and a momentum of energy released.
7. Dismissing your own needs
When you work hard and long to chase goals at work you might start a process of dismissing your own needs. We justify it by saying things like ‘this is the price I have to pay’. Or ‘I have to set an example of hard work for the team’, ‘I am new here, I cannot take time off now’ etc.
This becomes a habit and systematically erodes either your own or your family’s needs.
Identify your main motivation to overwork yourself. Try to check whether you are ‘sacrificing the permanent on the altar of the temporal’. You should rearrange your priorities and set boundaries regarding time spent at work and home. Try to make one significant change at a time e.g. no working on Saturdays.
8. Your workload is too much
I ignored this simple fact: if you carry too heavy a load for too long, the load will be too heavy to carry. You might even drop a few parcels of the load or get injured.
Our capability at work may not be the problem, but our capacity certainly is. There is always a limit to how much we can do. Yet, we do not have to do it all alone. Other people can help us carry the load.
Start to share the load, even if it only a small portion at a time. Although delegating is an obvious solution, we are sometimes limited by other people’s lack of ability. Therefore, systematically train your team to manage the tasks.
Hire capable, skilled people. This will initially be costly of time and resources, but eventually benefit you. Outsource tasks not within your field of expertise and avoid being a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.
If you are an individual employee, specialise and give management feedback on your workload. Try to declutter and implement processes to save time and effort.
9, Concentration and attention slips
Researcher Deligkaris (2014) showed that burnout is associated with a decline in three main cognitive functions: executive functions (planning, decision making, evaluating, initiating, inhibition etc.), attention and memory. Therefore, when you show symptoms of burnout such as exhaustion, it is a natural consequence to struggle with these brain functions.
Researchers are looking at ‘brain rehabilitation activities’ to improve your ability to function. Prioritise these cognitive activities. Look at resources such at Dr Caroline Leaf’s book “Switch on your brain - the key to peak happiness, thinking and health” .
Physical exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, is a proven intervention for stress. Recent studies show that it promises to improve cognitive and brain functioning. Enriching your diet will also improve your health and some cognitive functions. Some medications to enhance concentration might also improve your cognitive functions (please consult a medical professional e.g. psychiatrist).
10. Spiritual dryness
Ministry burnout is known for the symptom of ‘spiritual dryness’. It happens when pastors neglect their own spiritual lives and give more than they receive. Ministry contexts tend to contribute to this isolation and roles of relentlessly supporting and helping others.
Setting boundaries with your congregation is critical. You need time alone, in places where you receive spiritual nourishment without being in the role of the giver. Join a men’s group from a church in an adjacent town, go to ministry retreats, take regular leave, make friends outside of your congregation and attend conferences and outings where you are ministered to.
Recovering from burnout is possible, I for one am an example of this. It is not a shame to be at a place of exhaustion and needing to ask for help. Rather, it takes courage and is wise. You have a definite purpose to fulfill, now is the season to receive so that you can continue to give for years to come.
For I will [fully] satisfy the weary soul, and I will replenish every languishing and sorrowful person.”
Jeremiah 31:25 The Amplified Bible
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