Episode #52: Getting to Know Burnout
I flirted with burnout a couple of weeks ago, but I recognized it and was able to walk myself back from the ledge. In order to avoid (or recover) from burnout, we need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms, choose to save ourselves, and invest in intentional recovery practices at least(!) until we start to feel like ourselves again. If we want to stay well, we need to integrate recovery into our daily lives. Listen here to learn more about how to recognize burnout before you become a frog in boiling water.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
Whew. It feels good to be back behind the mic recording a podcast for you. The last several weeks have been so, so hard. Mostly for my oldest, but as her mother, trying to hold space for all of the things while also holding space for myself, has been exhausting. If you are on my email list, you know some of the pieces of the puzzle that have been in play. Others I won’t share because they aren’t my story. All of this against the backdrop of life with 3 kids--in a global pandemic of course--including one senior in high school, such as taking the ACT (with a cold--her, not me) and applying for colleges and scholarships. Is anyone else still trying to catch up with 2020 life maintenance doctors’ appointments? Like annual physicals??? Just me?
Before LIFE came to play, I was already slated for an intense September and October from a business perspective. I am really grateful and excited for the evolutions occurring within my business. But let’s just say that when my daughter injured her ankle, I was already “behind.” Surprisingly--to me at first--I was able to stay laser focused on 2 things for the first few weeks. Being a MOM, and getting one work project (or piece of a project) out the door each day. Even I forget how good I can be in a crisis. It happens when your formative years are chaos.
That laser focus also left certain things by the wayside--maintaining my strict bedtime, drinking enough water, eating as often as I need to eat, even going to the gym which has been my bedrock over the last many months. I wasn’t out of the gym completely, but I was not able to go as often and when I did go, I found my physiology wasn’t up to any sort of intensity. Gratefully, my self-awareness (at this point in my life) is such that I would keep moving during a workout but back off to the point at which it didn’t make my heart feel like it was going to blow out of my chest.
A couple of weeks ago I felt a fatigue in my bones that I hadn’t felt in years. If felt achingly familiar. And not in a good way. I knew that ache. I used to live there every day. Depleted. Tapped out. But still somehow pushing forward. On autopilot.
What was different about the experience this time is that I KNOW that ache. And I know what comes next if I don’t intervene on my own behalf. About the same time I tuned into my level of fatigue, I also got a gift from the Universe. A cancelled speaking engagement (due to COVID). While I was disappointed about the cancellation because it was going to be amazing to be in front people again, sharing what I know about staying well in this chaotic and chronically uncertain world we are living in right now (yes, I get the irony), and while I hope to have the chance to share with that audience in the future, I jumped on the chance to rest using my newfound time. In other words, instead of picking up one of the many projects sitting on my plate, I laid down on the couch--and barely moved for almost 3 hours. I would like to say that power nap “fixed” it. But chronic stress and burnout recovery isn’t instantaneous. In truth that was just the beginning. A few days later, I put myself to bed at 7pm and stayed there until 7am in an intentional bid to keep myself out of the burnout (and poor mental health) spiral.
As I have returned to what I know about the first line of defense in stress and burnout recovery--sleep, water, food, movement, sunshine, and breath--I am starting to recover and feel a little bit better each day.
This is where it gets tricky. There is often a point in burnout recovery where we are “well enough” to become impatient. Like, why don’t I feel better already?!?! I took a whole day off! (That used to be me). It’s still sometimes me. Stress and burnout recovery is a slow, intentional climb. Not a sprint. I know. It sucks. I am sorry. But keep the faith. This is an incremental journey. And still well worth it!
So what do we know about burnout? I am coming back to my commitment to cover the 6 Steps for Stress Recovery and Burnout Prevention in more depth via the podcast. For those of you playing at home, we are on Step 2. Before we can assess where we are in relation to burnout, we need to understand more about what burnout is, where it comes from and how it shows up in the form of signs and symptoms. Yes, it is not lost on me that I just did this dance. AGAIN. But here we are.
Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses. Anything changed in your life lately? Kidding. It’s not even funny. It’s 2020.
BURNOUT is the result of chronic stress WITHOUT ADEQUATE RECOVERY, which ultimately OVERWHELMS an individual's stress management and coping skills.
Our bodies are incredibly resilient. But our stress response was intended to be temporary and in response to imminent danger to life and limb. Like escaping a sabre toothed tiger. Our bodies were not designed to swim in a cortisol bath all day every day. Chronic stress becomes toxic stress; ultimately breaking down every system in the body . . . from our nervous system to our hormonal, digestive, endocrine, and immune systems. EVERY SYSTEM IN THE BODY WILL ULTIMATELY BREAK DOWN OVER TIME IF WE DO NOT INTERCEDE ON OUR OWN BEHALF BY NOT ONLY MITIGATING STRESS WHERE WE CAN BUT ALSO BUILDING INTENTIONAL STRESS RECOVERY AS A PRIORITY INTO OUR DAILY LIVES.
So what is the difference between stress and burnout? This is an excerpt from an article titled Stress and Burnout in Ministry: “While chronic stress can cause burnout, there is a difference between the two. Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.
Burnout on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excess stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. And while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.”
Signs and symptoms of burnout are broken into 3 components:
Physical and emotional exhaustion
Cynicism and detachment
Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
Physical symptoms can include:
Feeling tired and drained most of the time
Lowered immunity or frequent illness
Frequent headaches, muscle pain, or other physical complains
Changes in appetite, stomach or bowel problems
Changes in sleep habits
Emotional symptoms can feel like:
A 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; and
Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
And finally, behavioral symptoms might include:
Withdrawing from responsibilities
Isolating yourself from others
Are you using food, drugs, alcohol (or other coping mechanisms) to feel better or to simply not feel at all
Taking out your frustrations on others
The impact of burnout crosses personal and organizational lines, including, but not limited to:
Stress-related health issues (some of them chronic or terminal)
Increased substance abuse (or other coping behaviors)
It can precipitate anxiety, depression,and decreases in self-esteem
Reduced commitment to your organization
Absenteeism or presenteeism
Intention to leave
Judgment errors or more mistakes
Actual job turnover
Higher organizational costs
Before I crashed and burned. I thought I couldn’t afford to take a break from work, ask for (or demand) more help at home, to tell people the truth about how much I was suffering, to step away and take whatever time I needed to heal. But it turns out, what I thought “couldn’t afford” almost cost me my life. And it also has cost me upward of $700,000. Last night, I was filling out a financial aid application for college for my daughter. It was a painful reminder of all that I have lost financially as a result of my crash and burn and ensuing mental illness.
Based on my experience, there are 4 stages of burnout just as there are 4 stages of mental health or cancer. Just as with cancer, the symptoms and risks of burnout become more pronounced and more dangerous as you progress through the stages. Also like cancer, ignoring burnout at stage 1 will only ensure the progression of the disease. As with cancer, burnout can be fatal.
At Stage 1, you begin to show symptoms of burnout, but you are still able to maintain the ability to function at home, work, or school--although perhaps not as easily as before you started to have symptoms. Often there is a sense that something is “not right.”
At Stage 2, it usually becomes obvious that something is wrong. Your symptoms may become stronger and last longer, or new symptoms may start appearing on top of existing ones; creating something of a snowball effect. Performance at work will become more difficult, and you may have trouble keeping up with family duties, social obligations, or personal responsibilities.
If you make it to Stage 3, your symptoms have continued to increase in severity, and many symptoms are often taking place at the same time. You may feel as if you are losing control of your life and your ability to fill your roles at work or home.
And by Stage 4, the combination of extreme, prolonged and persistent symptoms of impairment often result in development of other health conditions (potentially chronic or terminal) and have the potential to turn into a crisis event like unemployment, hospitalization, or suicide.
The burnout progression is like being a frog in boiling water. Burnout sneaks up on us. That is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to check in with ourselves (and to equip our tribe) with critical, potentially life saving information. We also have to practice acknowledging and honoring the signals our body is sending us each and every day. It is still my habit to downplay or disregard the messages from my body. But I have gotten better at interceding on my own behalf before I fall into the burnout funnel.
Remember my story from earlier about the last few weeks? I flirt with the burnout funnel all of the time. Life is hard. And complicated. And stressful at levels we never imagined were possible. But now I know how to pull myself back. I know what it feels like when I start to fray around the edges or flirt with the burnout funnel. I know what it feels like in my body. I have become accustomed to paying attention to how I feel in my body; something I didn’t do, and frankly was no longer able to do by the time I crashed and burned. I know where to begin--how to engage recovery strategies--when I start to feel myself falling. And I am compelled by my own experience and knowledge to take action NOW and not later.
You see, ignoring the burnout will not make it better. If you ignore cancer, it will spread. It will grow. It will ravage your body. The same is true of burnout. If you ignore the signs and symptoms and just keep pushing forward, it will not get better. It will get worse.
This is what I know about burnout. What I also know is that the time to heal from burnout is unknown but here is my theory. I was on a call with a friend the other day who said that when he started taking antidepressants the rule of thumb for how long he would need to be on them was approximately twice as long as his symptoms went untreated.
Instinctively, I would suggest that this is also true of burnout although recovery is a distinctly individual experience. But how long does it take to recover? My guess is, approximately twice as long as you spent with untreated symptoms. And I also don't mean half-assing the recovery process. Yes, we will have fits and starts and times when we forget what we know and fall off the wagon. But I would argue that "recovery" begins when we first start prioritizing stress recovery, burnout prevention and our physical, mental, and emotional well-being like our life depends on it. Because it does.
So here is how burnout is different from cancer. With burnout WE HAVE CHOICES. At least until the point at which we have left our burnout unremedied for so long that we have developed a chronic or terminal illness. But until then, we have the opportunity to start to pull ourselves back from the ledge. I still have to pull myself back from the ledge on a regular basis, but not nearly as often as I used to. But at least now I know.
And I want you to know too. And to have all of the knowledge, tools and resources you need to intercede on your own behalf. That is why I am creating a self-guided online course to take you through the 6 Steps to Stress Recovery and Burnout Prevention. If you aren’t already subscribed to my emails, but you want more information about when the course is available to the public, hop on over to boothandrews.com and subscribe.
Thank you for listening today. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content.
I look forward to being back with you next time!