What You Are Feeling is Burnout

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It’s time to talk about burnout. Considering what we have all muddled through (and are still going through) over the last year or so, it can come as no surprise that many of us are feeling deeply exhausted. For unknown reasons, I never thought to share my own burnout saga. However, I thought it might help in some small way. First let me say, that the dynamic was hastened by the pressures of the pandemic — yet it is very possible that the roots had already been established. I’ve also realized, that if we fail to see the writing on the wall early, burnout can take hold in a manner that can be difficult to shake.

Burnout is real. We need to act promptly. To protect ourselves and hopefully mitigate its long-term damage. (See an overview of the research here.)

As a coach, I’ve discussed burnout with many individuals over the years. I’ve seen burnout manifest during unpredictable organizational change initiatives, as well as healthy industry peaks. It can occur because of one perpetually trying client or the full brunt of a dire economic downturn. Burnout is also rooted in our personal lives; too many burdens or disappointments, not enough joy, a defeated mindset or family issues.

Ultimately, no one is immune.

We do seem to experience burnout as individuals, so its course is also individual. This can throw us off the trail and likely leave us unprepared. Burnout will not look the same across people. As a result, it can fly under the radar, What you are feeling may not initially appear to be burnout.

Above all, we should be discussing the issue and sharing experiences. Personally, burnout manifested in my world as a thunderstorm gathering courage in the distance. There were signs it was approaching. Pangs of apathy and avoidance. Yet, because that is alarming on many levels — particularly because in most cases (as was with mine) the work is our livelihood — we try to ignore its presence. We may have trained for years or others may depend upon us; there are so many reasons that we cannot simply pick up, check out or change course.

As a rule, I believe that we opt to compensate however we know how and press on. We assume there is nothing to be done, as we cannot change the things we must (and in many cases previously loved) and should do.

However, there are costs to this strategy.

Engagement with our work wanes. Motivation plummets. As is the case now, we have also lived through a tumultuous time in history which has affected every breathing corner of our lives. We cannot expect all of this this to steer clear from our lives.

While we may not be able to walk away from life’s responsibilities, we can take the time to understand the winds within our own storm. This may offer clues that can lead to solutions. So, here are a few things to consider when attempting to understand burnout, and its roots, in life & work.

Hopefully, the topics may alert you to something that can be addressed.

  • We do not acknowledge broken agreements about work & life we have made with ourselves. In many cases, there is a psychological contract with ourselves, that we have breached. We may have briefly thought: “I’m extremely weary of this” or “I’m not as happy with this part of my career, as I used to be”, but we pressed on. The scales were tipping and we kept on going, without considering where that path might lead. The rewards were simply not keeping pace with the investment of time, trouble and emotion.
  • When to stop is never discussed. We are offered an abundance of advice about how to start something. Yet there is not nearly enough discussion about when and how (and why) we should slow down or step away from something in life or work. We conveniently forget that remaining productive & happy over the long-haul requires balance & rest, even with the tasks that we love. We may not have had the strategies in place to achieve this.
  • We wait for a savior. It is unlikely that someone will approach you to say, “Stop what you are still doing well.” or ” You should take a bit of time for yourself”. You must take on the responsibility of your own psychological resources. Monitor feelings of hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism. Pay attention if one has fallen precipitously.
  • Declare or wither. One pillar of core stability (my work lifestyle philosophy), is to embrace radical self-awareness regarding what you need to stay productive. We cannot always choose the roles, tasks, or people that are a part of our life’s journey. However, if it is humanly possible to affect core elements before burnout sets in, do this. Declare the elements that are vital to you as a contributor.
  • Acknowledge that living through history is an accelerator. As a child I used to try to imagine how others had lived through World Wars. What were they thinking? Could they go back to living normal lives, that would include joy or a sense of calm? I can only hypothesize that they would not want to return to the elements of their lives that were already worn or troublesome. They would want to grab life and live it to the fullest. That a clear purpose to live well, would dominate.

I do not have the answers — only more questions. However, acknowledging what we have lived through and how this affects our work is vital. Above all, know that our collective journeys are personal, and this requires a very personal solution.

Do you have a strategy to mitigate burnout? How has this helped you? Share it with this forum.

Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life & have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, BBC Work Life, Quartz and The Huffington Post

1 thought on “What You Are Feeling is Burnout”

  1. Hi Marla,
    Thanks for sharing! I am currently recovering from a situation in which I have experienced chronic stress – wouldn’t call it a burnout but I was getting there. I feel like I am starting to feel a bit better now, after I have found a solution with my employer two months ago. We have agreed that I would work less hours, to avoid a complete burnout from happening. Moreover, we agreed that I would transfer my project to a new employee. In addition to this, I will take 3 weeks off this month and my next assignment will be in a less stressful environment. It wasn’t that easy to negotiate these changes when I was already feeling stressed out, but I am very glad about the outcome now. I would like to mention that indeed it is very important to watch how you feel, possible to keep a diary. If you notice that you’re feeling irritated about work every day, probably you’re heading in the wrong direction. This sounds very logical but believe me, there are a lot of ways to fool yourself or to discourage yourself from taking the necessary actions /steps to speak up and try to change the situation. If you continue such a situation for too long, it is likely that you will feel the pain later. I believe there are often alternative possibilities, however when you are in such a situation it is hard to be optimistic. I would recommend talking to friends, family and /or a coach, as they might provide you with new perspectives. All the best to everyone who is in such a situation at the moment! 🙂


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