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How to Recognize Burnout and Rediscover Your Spark

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Your eyes are exhausted from staring at your computer screen all day. Your brain is mush and you’re not really reading what’s in front of you anymore. You swear you’ve never wanted to leave work and take a long nap more than you do right now.

More and more, people are recognizing that burnout is a real phenomenon affecting personal wellbeing and employee performance. Someone saying, “I think I’m starting to burn out,” is often met with well-intentioned ideas for self-care. Examples may include: treat yourself to a fancy coffee, watch Netflix and order a pizza, get a manicure or a pedicure… But what is burnout, exactly? Are face masks and nice soaps really the answer to getting back into the groove?

What is Burnout?

The term ‘burnout’ has been thrown around for years by everyone from The Mayo Clinic to Forbes to health bloggers. The frequency of Googling “self-care” has been on the rise worldwide over the past several years. As the term moved from practitioner’s offices to the front page of the Internet, the definition became more blurred. What is burnout, and who gets to define it?

The medical community recognizes burnout as physical or emotional exhaustion that is directly caused by excessive, ongoing workplace stress. Many people are familiar with short-term stress: looming deadlines, a presentation, or a performance evaluation. However, burnout is not limited to the workplace. The unrelenting stress can come from any aspect of your life, and causes sufferers to lose hope that the stress will ever end. People with burnout then begin to disengage from their work and develop feelings of emptiness. NASA engineer and YouTuber Mark Rober put it as, “The treadmill keeps going but the dopamine runs out, so you just keep running even though it doesn’t feel good anymore.”

For many years burnout was not recognized as a medical diagnosis the same way as mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. The struggle to recognize burnout as a serious health problem led to confusion and inconsistent suggestions on ways to combat burnout. Burnout was “kind of this weird in-between ‘you’re not really sick, but you’re not fully capable of doing your work,’” according to sociologist Dr. Torsten Voigt. Lately, however, the tides have been changing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has refined the definition of burnout which will be included in the next edition of the International Classification of Diseases. Starting in January 2022, patients seeking a diagnosis for clinical burnout will be assessed by these three criteria:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

It’s important to note that healthcare providers must rule out other possible underlying causes, such as anxiety disorders, before diagnosing a patient with burnout. Another key point is that just because you don’t have an official diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that stress isn’t negatively impacting your life. A 2017 study linked burnout to physical health risks such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, and even premature death. According to the Harvard Business Review, treating both the physical and psychological effects of burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in the United States.

Even though the upcoming medical definition narrowly focuses on workplace stress, researchers recognize that burnout, stress, depression, and related conditions can happen to anyone. For example, a 2008 study found that about 50% of medical students experience burnout and about 10% experience suicidal ideation. Many studies like this one are specific to students and medical professionals in high-stress environments. Therefore, more investigating needs to be done on burnout of the average person.

What is Self-Care?

Self-care can include bubble baths and relaxing candle scents, but activities like these don’t encompass the full extent of what self-care actually is. The idea of self-care was originally created by the philosopher Foucault in the 1970s, but the resurgence of the idea in modern times is attributed to Audre Lorde, a poet who wrote in her 1988 book A Burst of Light that,

“[C]aring for myself is not a self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The concept of self-care belonged women’s and civil rights activists long before making its way into the mainstream. When Lorde was writing in the 80s, her experience was that white male doctors often dismissed the concerns of women and people of color. As a result, they turned inwards to their own communities to keep their bodies and minds sound. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” The rise of the Internet has connected people of color, women, and LGBT communities in ways they’ve never been connected before. The Hairpin (a popular women’s blog) features a column by Fariha Róisín and Sara Black which states: “This column has a singular purpose: to talk to women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.”

Although the connotations of activist burnout have mostly fallen away from present-day definitions, the sentiment remains the same. How do you care for yourself, even in the most trying of times? This gets at the core of what self-care really is: what do you do on a daily basis to fill up the gas tank?

Maintaining basic physical and mental health is the cornerstone of self-care. Although the definitions from various health organizations have evolved over the years, the International Self-Care Foundation identifies seven “pillars” of self-care:

  1. Health literacy – do you have access to information to make healthy decisions for yourself?
  2. Self-awareness – do you know basic information about your body and mind, such as your blood pressure and mental health status?
  3. Physical activity – do you get enough exercise?
  4. Healthy eating – do you maintain an appropriate diet?
  5. Risk avoidance – how do you manage factors that can decrease your lifespan and/or quality of life, such as smoking or drinking alcohol? 
  6. Hygiene – do you regularly engage in activities like brushing your teeth?
  7. Responsible use of medical tech and services – do you follow your doctor’s advice? Do you get regular health screenings, and take medications as prescribed?

Engaging in activities that make you happy simply for the sake of engaging in them is one part of maintaining mental health. Unfortunately, practicing this particular piece of self-care has been conflated with quick-fixes, while not addressing the actual problem. Are you using that bath bomb because you genuinely enjoy taking baths (a la novelist John Green and his unadulterated love for Lush “bath balls”), or are you hoping in vain that the smell of lavender will drive away the nagging thoughts of emails piling up in your inbox?

How Can You Use Self-Care to Combat Burnout?

Sources differ on exactly how many “types” of self-care there are. For example, Planned Parenthood divides self-care into six different categories:

  • Emotional Self-Care. These are, “activities that help you connect, process and reflect on a full range of emotions”. Consider keeping a journal, read a beloved book, see a therapist (or other mental health professional), or spend time with loved ones.
  • Practical Self-Care. What do you need to do to keep your life on track? Have you made your monthly budget, signed up for classes next semester, or made your doctor’s appointments?
  • Physical Self-Care. These are things you do to keep your body in good condition. Make sure you stay hydrated, get enough exercise, sleep 8 hours a night, and eat nutritious meals.
  • Mental Self-Care. What are you doing to keep your mind sharp? It’s important to stay mentally stimulated. Try out a new hobby, work on a puzzle, go to the new exhibit at a museum, or sign up for a class at your local community center.
  • Social Self-Care. This type of self-care involves maintaining and creating new relationships in your life. Have you called your mom and/or dad recently? When’s the last time you went to brunch with your best friend?
  • Spiritual Self-Care. How do you connect to something bigger than yourself? This type of self-care is not necessarily religiously-oriented, but it can be if you choose. Meditate, practice yoga, attend a service at your place of worship, or even take a moment to reflect and write down 5 things you’re grateful for.

When Self-Care Isn’t Enough

Burnout is a temporary state. However, if you find you’re consistently overly anxious or you find yourself slipping deeper and deeper into hopelessness that your situation may never get better, the issue may be deeper than burnout. If you find your situation doesn’t improve, it may be time to reach out to a mental health care professional. Call or text a hotline below to get help in your country:

  • Call National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI): 800-950-6264
    Text NAMI to 741741
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-622-4357

…or find your country here.

Still interested in ways to practice genuine self-care? Take a look at the following resources…

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