Are You Burned Out Or Just Really Tired?
I hear the term burnout a lot in my work as an executive coach. My job is to help people figure out if they are really burned out or just exhausted. The two can seem similar, but they are actually very different.
Exhaustion after a long work sprint or complicated project is understandable. Exhaustion is curable by rest, whereas burnout requires more than rest.
Taking a vacation, catching up on sleep, or getting back into your exercise routine are all ways to “cure” exhaustion. You might be dealing with burnout, however, if none of these things work. It is especially alarming if you do take a good bit of time off (meaning completely off of work, and off of your electronic tethers as well) only to return with a sinking feeling that nothing has changed or improved, and the realization that your feelings about work are headed in a less than positive direction.
How to tell if you are burned out
The World Health Organization recently classified burnout as a syndrome.
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three 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; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
(source the World Health Organization)
I like the part of the WHO entry about chronic workplace stress that is not “successfully managed” as my experience with burnout is that you are the only one who can fix it. While external factors contribute to your burnout, once you are in it, it is a very personal and individual experience to address it.
Another important part is the symptom of cynicism and negativism. This one can easily be missed. Unless you are historically a negative and cynical person, this should be a huge red flag for you. If everyone around you at work seems stupid or incompetent lately—or if you feel that nothing will ever change and that you have no choices—you might be burned out.
Tips to Address Burnout
- Take real time off for reflection and rejuvenation. Going on a “vacation” to Disney World with your family and your kids’ cousins for five days, then returning to work and an inbox of 5000 emails is not real time off. Part (and only part) of the “fix” is taking some solid, consecutive days of rest, reflection, and retreat. The idea here is to recharge and to have some time to think.
- Figure out the core reason. You probably don’t want to go there, but it is critical to reflect and determine what pushed you over the edge from exhaustion to burnout. You cannot do the next two tips without this information. Was it the new board member who wants you out? Was it the extra hours from COVID-related issues? Was it trying to navigate work while going through a messy divorce? No judgment, just the facts. When you stumble upon the core reason, you will know it.
- Set some new boundaries. Often this is a structural change such as having no meetings on Fridays or hiring an admin to reduce your workload. But it can also be specific to your needs and preferences. One of my clients had a peer who was incredibly creepy toward her and so she made a rule that he was not allowed to step foot in her office. She would meet with him virtually but never in person.
- Learn something new. Learning can be like an anti-depressant. Think about it for a moment. When has learning something of interest to you ever been a bad idea? Sure, it takes time, sometimes costs money, and requires you to make decisions and commitments—but it can be worth it. The cool thing is that the learning does not have to be specific to work to have a positive effect. Our brains sometimes need the novelty and change to help us along. Do your brain a favor and sign up for some new learning.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own self-care and mental health. Whether you are burned out or not, take some time to think about what you need to have a lasting, positive relationship with your work. Make a list and get to work on that. Don’t forget to congratulate yourself on the structures you have already put into place to support your fabulous self.