The truth about burnout: what are the causes and how to treat it
Recent survey results indicate work is the biggest cause of stress for Singaporeans.
You might have noticed feeling completely lethargic before you even start work, or strange aches and pains around your body at the end of your 15-hour shift (despite only needing to work 9 of those hours).
These are common symptoms of burnout. And it’s now been classified as a clinical syndrome by the World Health Organisation.
This is especially relevant to Singaporeans. A recent survey revealed that work is the leading cause of stress with 92% of Singaporean working adults stating they are unhappy are stressed.
In particular, the workaholic “always on” culture particularly affects women, where 71% of women reported working in environments with this approach. It comes as no surprise that women are more likely to suffer from burnout from the workplace.
To better understand how to treat this clinical syndrome, let’s take a look at how it manifests.
What is burnout?
According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is classified as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
The main cause is attributed to accumulated stress accumulated from work.
It’s most identifiable through three core dimensions.
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
- reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
Each of these dimensions can manifest in different ways.
1. Feeling exhausted
When you’re heading towards burnout, you’ll often drained of energy most of the time. You may also notice an increased frequency of headaches or muscle pains around the body.
Your appetite fluctuates, where you’ll eat more or less, and your sleep will be disturbed.
In turn, this affects your immune system and you’ll fall sick more often.
2. Feeling negative about work
Another dimension is increasing negativity towards work.
You might find yourself doubting yourself and feeling like you’re failing at everything.
You may also feel isolated and don’t know where to get help, ultimately feeling overwhelmed.
It’s not unusual to then feel demotivated and have little sense of satisfaction or any sense of accomplishment.
3. Not being able to do as much as you usually can
When combined with the other two dimensions, this effectively lowers your usual efficacy.
As you feel unable or unwilling to do your usual workload, you might see yourself withdraw from responsibilities, as well as from other people.
When you’re around your work colleagues or family, you might lose your temper more easily and lash out at others.
If you are trying to do your work, it’ll take you a lot longer to do things, and you might procrastinate for long periods of time.
It’s commonly seen where drugs, food, or alcohol are used as coping mechanisms.
Also, people suffering from burnout take more sick days than usual, or arrive at work later and leave earlier.
What’s the cause behind burnout?
While burnout has been well-documented in how it looks like, there isn’t a universally agreed explanation for why it occurs.
It’s generally accepted burnout is due to a combination of many factors, not necessarily just a high-pressure work environment. If the stress is correctly managed, it doesn’t lead to any serious consequences.
However, if you feel like you have little control over your work, it can cause bitterness and leave you feeling cynical.
Not being recognised or rewarded for quality work output is also another factor that contributes to burnout.
Feeling overworked and apathetic about your work can affect your social life. You might find yourself withdrawing from social gatherings or have fewer supportive relationships.
Furthermore, you might feel like you’re taking on too many responsibilities and don’t know how or can’t delegate to other people.
This, in turn, affects your perspective. You can develop a perfectionist mindset, where nothing is ever good enough. You then have a pessimistic view of yourself and constantly set high goals that might not be realistic or achievable.
While there are many contributing factors that lead to burnout, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge you are suffering from this syndrome. Then you can get help to start on the road to recovery.
How to deal with burnout
Thankfully, burnout isn’t a permanent condition. By making some adjustments to your work environment, you can improve the symptoms and start to look forward to work again.
1. Take time away from work
Stepping away from work for an extended period of time can give you the space you need to reset and recover.
It’s tempting to only take a couple of days off before you jump back into the daily grind. However, booking a minimum of two weeks off can help you disconnect from work so you have clarity of mind to work through the things that are troubling you.
During that time, don’t answer any emails, work-related phone calls, or address any issues at work.
Take the time to do something that you really enjoy and haven’t had time to. It might be picking up a hobby again, or going for a staycation.
2. Remove coffee and alcohol from your diet
It may sound counterintuitive, but people often turn to stimulants like coffee, energy drinks, or cigarettes to help cope with symptoms of burnout.
It might feel like it helps you get through the day, but you’ll quickly find you’re dependent on them. If your workload burgeons, you’ll also find yourself smoking and drinking even more to match increasing stress.
These products can also affect your sleep, which is vital to your recovery. Poor sleep is linked to a higher risk of chronic diseases, as well as increasing the risk of accidents. Not to mention poorer work productivity!
3. Confide in someone you trust
It can feel tough opening up to others about your situation because you might be perceived as “weak” and should just “get on with it”.
However, finding someone you really trust to share these problems with can lift the burden off your shoulders.
It might be your spouse, your children (if they’re old enough or mature enough), or your best friend.
You can confide in a trusted co-worker, but be cautious as they may use the information and spread rumours against you.
Telling someone you trust doesn’t have to be someone who understands your industry or what your job necessarily entails. But do reach out to someone you are close to.
Keeping your feelings bottled up can actually be more of a burden to people as they see you’re miserable and frustrated.
As a further aside, consider hanging around fewer negative people. They’re the type of folks who take every opportunity to complain about everything and anything. It can leave a negative influence where you’re left feeling even more pessimistic than usual. If you work with someone like this, think about limiting how much time you interact with them.
4. Make time for exercise
Instead of reaching out for junk food and drinking alcohol to help cope with stress, consider working in time for exericse.
While the age-old adage of “you are what you eat” holds true, it also applies to how much physical activity you do (or don’t do).
Take care of your body and get the adrenaline pumping for a short while each day. It might be a walk to work instead of using public transport, hitting the gym, or playing more sports.
Exercise is an effective and fulfilling way to let off some steam. Your mental and physical health will thank you for it further down the line.
5. Leave your job
We’re not advocating you consider this immediately. If all the above tips don’t work, then consider leaving your current job as a last resort.
Earning a living and making money so you can put food on the table for your family is an important factor.
However, if this comes at the cost of your mental and physical health taking a massive downturn, then you won’t be able to sustain working at your company for very long before you have a breakdown.
Take courage – you’ll be able to find another job. It may still be in your current industry, or a change in career path altogether.
But once you find something you enjoy doing again, you’ll find fulfilment and satisfaction in work to lower the risk of burnout happening in the future.
Burnout is a clinical syndrome that isn’t talked about enough. Many working parents have various stressors squeezing them from different angles. However, learning how to identify the symptoms and take steps to alleviate them can help stop yourself from hurtling down a negative spiral and be the start of improving your mental, emotional, and physical health.
Remember to take care of yourself, parents!