You hear the term “burnout” pretty often, so much so that I think many people don’t really know what it is. True burnout is complete mental and emotional exhaustion. It’s more than just being stressed out. How do you deal with burnout?
As I mentioned, people often use the term burnout when they’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or just overworked. How do you know if you’re just having a bad week or if you’re really facing burnout?
Look for the warning signs:
Simple tasks become difficult
Think about the routine tasks you do. Off the top of your head, you know how long it normally takes, or how long something should take. For example, doing the laundry might take you an hour. Updating your bookkeeping for your business might be a two-hour task. When you’re facing burnout, these normal tasks take 2-3 times longer. You can’t focus long enough to complete them.
This is one of the warning signs that something is wrong. If you normally breeze through a task, and you’re finding it increasingly difficult, you need to pay attention and address it.
Mood and Behavior Swings
If you’re having a bad day, or you’re really stressed out, it’s normal to be cranky. However, if you have large shifts in moods or behaviors repeatedly, pay attention. Burnout will also often cause us to indulge in bad habits more frequently. If you find yourself using a bad habit as a crutch to get through the day or you’re snapping at loved ones, ask yourself why.
Burnout can overpower your logical thinking and you might have a harder time staying calm—even when the situation isn’t that big of a deal.
Low or No Energy
If your energy is completely zapped by simple tasks, like running a few errands, you might be looking at a sign of burnout. People who are burned out are fatigued and take naps often. If you’re getting physically sick or you haven’t been sleeping well, those are reasons for fatigue. However, if you can’t pinpoint a physical reason for being so tired, it might be burnout.
Worsening mental health
When you’re suffering from burnout, other mental health issues tend to be exacerbated. Your anxiety or depression might spike. If you feel like your mental health issues are worsening, be sure to speak to your therapist.
Lack of interest
If you find that your hobbies or activities that you normally enjoy are not holding your interest, take note. This doesn’t have to apply to things that take a lot of effort, like organizing a rock climbing trip. It could be something as simple as binge-watching a show on Netflix, reading a favorite author, or hanging out with friends. If you find yourself isolating from others or withdrawing from parts of your life, you need to address it.
Lack of interest is a warning sign of burnout as well as depression. If you don’t currently work with a therapist, you might want to seek one out or at least speak to your primary doctor.
The tricky thing about burnout for people who have mental illnesses and/or struggle with executive dysfunction, all of the warning signs might seem totally normal for you. People who have ADHD often fall in and out of love with hobbies. Is it ADHD brain or is it a lack of interest due to burnout? People who are in a deep depression have a hard time getting out of bed some days; they are always tired. Is it depression or burnout?
The thing is, you know yourself. You know the executive functions you normally struggle with and how it feels. Burnout is different. You might not know immediately what it is, but you can recognize that you’re not your usual level of sleepy/disorganized/scattered/impulsive, etc.
Burnout will absolutely fuck with any level of executive functioning you have. So, if something is already difficult, it’s going to feel impossible. You might look at your planner in utter confusion as if you’ve never used it before. You might think an email will take 10 minutes to write, but you lose an hour staring at the screen.
If you think you’re facing burnout, what recourse do you have? How do you bounce back?
Left untreated, burnout can have lasting serious effects on your personal and professional life. Like with many other mental illnesses, a key factor in getting better is rest and self-care.
Tips for Burnout Recovery
Figure out the stressors and triggers
Before you can find ways to heal from burnout, you need to figure out what is causing it. When did the overwhelm start? Has something recently changed in your life that has added stress?
Look at ways in which your life is different right now. Are family members or friends more demanding? Maybe you’ve started a new project at work and things are chaotic. Maybe you haven’t had enough downtime to rest.
Something to keep in mind is that even the things you love can trigger burnout. I’ve known quite a few authors who have faced burnout. They love to write. They have characters and stories in their heads, but the state of the world or the amount of pressure they’ve put on themselves triggered burnout and they weren’t able to write. The words wouldn’t come, or if they did, they weren’t right.
You love your kids, but when their schedules demand a lot of your time, or if they’re going through a difficult time, it can lead to overwhelm for you. You’re used to taking care of everyone and not being able to fix things for them takes a toll on you.
Before deciding how to move forward to heal from burnout, find your stressors so you can address them. Even if you can’t make them go away, you can prepare for when things worsen.
Step Back from Work
I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way I can step away from work. I can’t afford it. I know that’s not always an option. Believe it or not, I’ve spent most of my life living paycheck to paycheck. Missing a day might mean not being able to pay a bill.
But here’s the thing—if you keep pushing yourself, things will get worse and you won’t be able to do your job. You will make mistakes or not be able to function the way you normally would. In the long run, burnout will cost you more than a day off.
That said, take a break in ways that are feasible for you. If you can’t take a day off work, take the evening and don’t worry about household chores. Let the kids have cereal for dinner. The laundry can wait. Do something for yourself, even if it’s just crawling into bed and sleeping for 12 hours.
Whew. As women, this tends to be a tough one. We have a hard time saying no to things. We take on additional responsibilities and obligations and decide we’ll just figure out how to make it work. Learning to say no is a lifesaver. You don’t need to be room mom (again) or be in charge of the latest project at work. Gracefully decline and don’t feel guilty about it. Other people can step up too. It doesn’t always have to be you.
And don’t let others guilt or bully you into accepting. Often, they’ll tell you things like, “You did such a good job last time, you’re a pro.” Don’t fall for it. It’s okay to put your own health and mental well-being first.
Practice Self-Care Every Day
Self-care doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. It’s just about doing something that makes you feel good. Do the thing that helps you recharge. Take a walk in the evening or first thing in the morning. Read a book (or reread a favorite). Close your office door and meditate at lunchtime.
Too often these things are referred to as guilty pleasures. You have nothing to feel guilty about. If we’re not allowed to do things that bring us pleasure, what the hell is the point?
As the world around us becomes messier and more stressful, burnout becomes a reality for more and more people. The first step to fixing it is to recognize when it starts. That way, you can begin making adjustments to head it off before it totally sucks you in. A hole is easier to climb out of than a gorge.