Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Living and Working Better”
Every day, we hear in the media that the experience of burnout has become overwhelming for many people around the world. I’ve personally heard from so many friends and clients sharing sentiments such as, “I feel so burned out with everything going on in my life, job and the world,” and “I’m totally exhausted by what’s in front of me that I have to deal with.” And also, I’ve heard job-related comments such as “My boss has no clue what I’m going through at home and in this job, and he doesn’t care at all.”
But do we actually know what burnout is for us personally, and what causes it specifically in our own lives?
There are numerous sources and causes of burnout, and each of us have different coping mechanisms and approaches for trying to deal with what feels overwhelming in our lives. This description from the Mayo Clinic Health System sums up the general problem well:
“Humans aren’t programmed to go through life without rest, solitude or downtime. The past 18 months have brought multiple changes or stress-inducing situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic; economic strain; racial unrest; political division; and environmental disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes. With everything going on, it’s easy to get blindsided by stress and burnout…It’s important to beware of symptoms and acknowledge when your responsibilities start to become too much to handle. “Burnout” isn’t a medical diagnosis, but generally it is feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion because of continual stress.”
Taken together, all these stressors and challenging situations we’ve never faced before can make us feel out of control and unequipped to handle our personal responsibilities and our job demands, along with world changes that are frightening. Further, the challenges can feel unending, which compounds our stress and anxiety.
As a personal example of burnout, when I was a corporate executive back in 2001, I felt unrelenting exhaustion and stress, particularly over juggling a demanding Vice President role while raising two young children. But true “burnout” came from additional stressors—such as feeling chronically devalued, mistreated and pushed to do things I didn’t want to or agree with—things that felt very wrong and uncomfortable. An overwhelming feeling of burnout came when I awakened to the harsh realization at age 40 that the corporate career I’d spent 18 long and hard years building was the wrong one, and it wasn’t going to get better. It was an experience of losing my core identity and not knowing how to get it back.
Those types of stressors often can lead to confusion, anxiety, fear, anger, and hopelessness which don’t abate until we do something concrete and different to address it. (In my case, I said, “Enough!” and changed my career entirely.)
Burnout can be caused by a myriad of events, factors and situations, including career stress, parenting challenges and anxieties, and other pressures from different aspects of our lives, where we don’t have the coping mechanisms and network of resources and support in place to address that type of stress and mental strain.
Additionally, I’ve seen an increase in a phenomenon I call “perfectionistic overfunctioning”–which is doing more than is healthy, appropriate and necessary and trying to get an A+ in all of it. This is also a major contributing factor, hitting women particularly hard. When we have more on our plates than ever before, compounded by “imposter syndrome,” guilt, (because we feel we’re not doing enough), uncertainty, fear, loss and dramatic change, it can just be too much.
But there are three helpful, doable steps you can take today to address burnout, and do something proactive and productive about it.
These three steps help us take the reins and feel more like the author of our lives than hapless victims.
#1: Gain greater awareness so you can have greater choice
Identify exactly what is generating your experience and feelings of burnout
To be able to address what is causing deep stress for you right now, it’s helpful to take time to sit quietly by yourself, without devices and distractions, and answer these questions:
1) What makes me most stressed, worried and anxious (or depressed) right now?
2) What is different now than a few years ago when I wasn’t feeling so burnt out? What has changed for me personally?
3) What is that stress emerging from specifically, and which of these situations are potentially within my control and which are not?
4) For those stressors that are completely outside my personal control (climate change, for instance), do I have coping mechanisms, behaviors, habits and rituals that help me reduce my anxiety about them?
5) For stressors within my control—such as how much work I’m trying to do every day in my job—is there one step I can take to address the work overwhelm (such as: talk to my boss about the workload and deadlines, participate in my employer’s EAP program for some support, or take some time off to recharge my battery?)
#2: Take the reins on what you can control
Address where you may be “overfunctioning”
In my therapy training, I learned about the behavior of overfunctioning, which in turn, perpetuates “underfunctioning” behavior in people around us. In a couple, for instance, when one partner handles far more than their equal share of domestic and parenting responsibilities in the family, typically the other partner does far less than their fair share, and the imbalance causes friction and challenge.
The “quiet quitting” trend that emerged powerfully on the scene in August has revealed even more clearly what is going wrong in many people’s worklives and jobs that leads them to want to pull back and do far less than they feel they’re being pushed to do, without receiving compensation or recognition for it. One way to look at it is that they are tired of “overfunctioning” without any reward for it.
Parents too are doing so much right now, but many aren’t connected to vital support networks (friends, community, social service resources, therapists, spiritual communities, etc.) that can help them handle some of their responsibilities and lessen their loads.
1) Are there people in my life or community I can ask for help from this week, who might be able to ease my burden?
2) Is it time for some therapeutic help where I can talk through—in an open, honest way—my challenges and feelings of stress, depression and overload (and guilt or shame), and the other mental and emotional challenges I’m facing?
3) Have I been a chronic “perfectionistic overfunctioner” throughout my life, perhaps for as long as I can remember? If so, how old is this problem and how did that behavior originate and why? Where do I put more on my plate than needs to be there, because I’m desperate to please others or make a good impression and be “accepted” and even loved?
4) What new boundaries and priorities can I establish and communicate this month to finally shift out of this overfunctioning behavior that is hurting me?
#3: Value yourself–and your health and wellbeing–just 10% more each today
Prioritize and value yourself and what you need and want more of today
When trying to handle major stressors, many people put themselves last on the list of what to focus on. We’re told we need more “self-care” and that’s true. But even the term “self-care” can make people think they’re being selfish or self-centered if they focus on themselves, so they push that idea away.
Another approach is to think about taking care of yourself as a more urgent and essential endeavor. It’s self-support we’re talking about. If you can’t support yourself, you can’t support anyone else or any important initiatives in your life.
When we’re on an airplane, for example, we’re instructed that if an oxygen mask drops down in front of us due to changes in cabin pressure, we are to put our own mask on first, then help our child or the person next to us. Similarly, we need to put our “oxygen masks” on now, more than ever.
You simply can’t function without what feeds you and your life and makes you feel better, healthier, and calmer. You can’t attend to your core responsibilities, and more importantly, live a healthy, fulfilling life if you ignore yourself and fail to give yourself that life “oxygen” you need and crave.
But you don’t need a life overhaul. Just start by giving yourself 10% more—10% more time, quiet, rest, sleep, relaxation, fun, socializing with friends, walking nature–whatever you crave most. Give it to yourself today and everyday.
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In the end, we’re not doomed to a condition of burnout. There are practical, manageable steps we can take to improve the quality of our lives. But that requires doing things differently from how we’ve always done them, starting now.