Have you felt any one or more of the following lately: physical lethargy; mental exhaustion; emotional emptiness; sloppiness in work; a disinterest in communication; indifference to things you previously enjoyed or an inability to find the right words to express your innermost feelings? If your answer is yes, it is likely then that you are experiencing the beginning of a ‘burnout'.
What is a burnout?
It was New York-based psychologist Herbert J Freudenberger who coined this term in his seminal work published in 1974 - Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement. He defined it as "the extinction of motivation or intent, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce a desired result".
In psychological terms, a burnout represents an extreme physical and emotional exhaustion that is triggered by protracted stress in your life. A graphic representation of what a burnout does to you is to compare it to the burning of a cigarette. When you light it up, the glowering edges of the soft paper wrapped around the tobacco begin to curl up and shrivel. If you were to concentrate on the paper you would notice how it is slowly and steadily licked by the flame. In the end, the paper becomes yellow, shrivels and turns into ash and all that is left is a stub. If you were to extend this metaphor to your life, you would understand how stress corrodes your psyche and causes a burnout. Of course, the slow burning can take years and you might fail to recognise the early symptoms when they set in. If you do, then you can actually save your self from going over the brink.
Take the case of Ben Martin, a bright software engineer from California who made it big at the age of 35 much to the envy of his friends. At the peak of his career, earning a six-figure salary, Martin was clocking many hours every day as group CEO of a highly successful IT organisation. Workdays were long but life was good - he lived in a sprawling mansion, had a premium golf club membership, enjoyed first class business travel - had breakfast in Paris and dinner in Frankfurt. Everything was dandy. And then one day, it all changed. Though he was still living in the sprawling house and flying first class all over the world. Suddenly, he started to feel fatigued to the bone, his eyes hurt from lack of sleep and his eating habits were being moderated to beat indigestion. He seemed to have less inclination to play golf or go on a vacation.
By the fourth year in this top position Martin was locked into a slow and steady burnout. He began to doze his way through meetings and missed deadlines. His marriage too started to fray as a result of his unavailability for family vacations or quality time with his wife and children. Miserable and exhausted, Martin quit his job, took a month-long holiday with his family and finally settled down in the Los Angeles countryside running his own software consultancy.
Looking back, he says he staged the retreat before the burnout could claim his life.
American philosopher Sam Keen describes burnout as "nature's way of telling you that you've been going through the motions while your soul has departed... You are zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleep walker."
Who is at risk?
Burnouts are endemic to modern society and can happen at any stage in life, says Dr Melanie Schlatter, health psychologist at the Well Woman Clinic, Dubai. Toddlers, teenagers, young adults, high society socialites, fashion models, beauty queens as well as highly skilled professionals like pilots, doctors and hospital nurses all have burnouts doing what is expected of them. You can have burnouts that are:
The Texas Medical Association lists two major causes for burnouts - a bureaucratic atmosphere and over-work and explains the three stages to burnout.
- Stress arousal which is manifested by irritability and anxiety
- Energy conservation: extreme tardiness, procrastination, social withdrawal and cynicism
Burnouts happen because you as a doer may be juggling too many balls in the air. One missed cue and you begin to trip in the measured dance of life. It could also happen because of a lack of spontaneity. How many times have you surprised your kids with an impromptu fun picnic? Do you need an appointments diary to take your wife out for a candle-lit dinner? If you are one of those strait-jacket executives dancing to the pull of the invisible threads of corporate life, you are not likely to break the monotony and reinvent your family life. It might be too late before you realise that you haven't met your best friends in six months and do not even know what your next-door neighbour looks like.
OK, this sounds dreadful but is it possible that even as you are reading this, burnout is creeping up on you?
Let us take a look at these self-created monsters and do some tactical slaying.
This is something you can experience at any age when you are pressurised by people or friends or by their expectations which drive you to do something that becomes obsessive. It is also possible that you might be dedicated to something and doing too much of that thing leaves you feeling frazzled and aggravated.
Burnouts in childhood mark the end of innocence. Toddlers by default get hooked on to computers or the television and for want of a more creative and constructive pastime, often spend hours playing cyber games or watching television when they should be gazing at the sun and the sky, making sand castles on the beach and cooling in the sea. All they have to express their feeling is the joystick and before you know it, it has taken the joy out of their lives. The bright side is that children are inventive enough to be able to get out of this phase provided parents are alert to the symptoms and get them out of the situation.
Having said that, a different kind of burnout is induced by parents - when they pressurise their kids to be ‘performing monkeys'. Forcing children to join various activities, from karate to piano-playing to ice-skating to learning the guitar and everything in between only because the neighbour's kids are doing the same raises the bar for children so high they rarely ever get back into shape having overstretched themselves.
There is a high rate of anorexia and bulimia among teenage girls who emulate their favourite fashion and film models, obsessing on size zero, often getting to be too precocious, wearing clothes and jewellery meant for older women, applying make-up, colouring hair and reading slanderous gossip to have everything on their finger tips. By the time they reach the age of 16 or 17, they begin to resemble rag dolls. When they turn into young adults they are no longer ‘blooming'. Instead, they have already exhausted the healthy curiosity and anticipation to life. Hollywood girls Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are poster examples of the early burnout syndrome. They have been in and out of rehab clinics, had run-ins with the law and been close to nervous breakdowns, unable to handle the stress that early fame has brought in its wake.
Parents need to let children be children, say psychologists. They should allow them to fully enjoy their childhood before steering them on to the path of young adulthood. They need to break any numbing pattern in their children's lives that threatens to make them robotic or robs them of their joy that is their birthright. If parents are experiencing a fear of failure, they need to have an iron resolve to not pass it on to their children.
This can happen any time in your career - early, middle or late. You might have the best job in the world and maybe passionate about it. But if the job does not allow you personal space or time and intrudes on your home life then you are definitely going in the direction of Burnsville.
Take this mini test.
Do you always feel that:
- Your organisation is exploiting you and squeezing every ounce of energy from you?
- You are not being rewarded with a commensurate raise in your salary?
- You have been overlooked at the time of a promotion?
- You are being sidelined at meetings?
- You have very low motivation for your work although you were passionate about it earlier?
- Your self-esteem is at the level of your socks?
If you answered yes to more than one of the above, your are in touching distance of being scorched.
Take a sabbatical or simply go for a lateral shift in the nature of your job, advises Dr Schlatter.
"Work-related burnout is typically associated with professionals who are working long hours in a high-pressure job. However, we know that it can occur in anyone who is experiencing a particularly frantic period of their lives, whether it be in the work place or in the home environment. The key features are de-personalisation and a reduction in the sense of personal achievement. Indeed, there is a slow progression of mounting stress over the longer term, which leads to a sense of feeling literally ‘burned out'- one is exhausted (emotionally, physically and mentally), and past the point of caring. They simply have nothing left to give, and they certainly don't have the motivation or interest to continue plodding on.
"If the person works in high-pressure or overtly competitive conditions, especially if they feel they have a lack of control or support; or if there is no room for personal opinion (for example, continually working towards someone else's goals or ideals), this can significantly increase the chance of burnout. Unfortunately, burnout is often unrecognisable until the later stages, at which time the symptoms are very difficult to differentiate from the symptoms of depression."
This one sneaks up on you when you are running that extra lap around Safa Park and feeling at the top of the world. A result of a relentless pursuit of a peak physical condition, physical burnout is entirely self-induced. Muscle tears, ligament injuries, physical fatigue are just some of the fallouts that can compel you to give up your love for exercise and the outdoors. Although sometimes you may not really experience a burnout, your body might buckle in. We saw this happen to well-known cricketer Andrew Flintoff. Last month, this young all-rounder from England who is now settled in Dubai, had to announce his retirement from all forms of cricket as his injuries had worn him out physically. With all the nagging injuries, Flintoff's physicians advised him to give it all up.
For people who believe on very strenuous routines for their bodies, moderation in exercise is the fastest road to recovery. Change your pace and type of workout. Leave the gym half an hour early. Get off the jogging track after two laps. Drop those weights 15 minutes earlier than your routine.
The important thing is to know when the burnout is happening and to be able to call it quits. This helps you ward off the burnout itself. In one of his discourses, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama says: "In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel "burnout" setting in, if you feel demoralised and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective."
This can happen to anyone required to invest a lot of emotions in a situation.
A close friend whose pre-adolescent daughter was suffering from leukaemia, experienced an emotional burnout. Every minute of the day my friend would be at her daughter's bedside, singing, laughing, talking, reading to her, sitting through the chemotherapy sessions, holding an impromptu party in the hospital ward... When her daughter died, she never recovered from it. She had quit her job to look after her daughter and for two years had cut herself off from socialising. Her daughter's death created such an emotional void in her that she suffered a nervous breakdown. A host of medical complications followed and within months she aged beyond recognition. Today, she is just a shadow of her old self trying to come to terms with life. The burnout a caregiver experiences is well-documented in medical research and procedures are laid out for doctors, nurses and family members, to deal with it.
Emotional burnout happens to people experiencing any kind of a relationship crisis - an abusive relationship, a divorce, a bereavement, the entry of a step-father, mother or sibling in one's life. Anything that puts a person on an emotional roller-coaster can have an exacting toll on your emotional health where you might feel so fraught with your feelings that your emotions might dry up completely. Sometimes people refuse to cry at the death of a loved one and that is a sign of a temporary emotional burnout triggered by an extreme emotional reaction. But if emotional stress continues for long, it is likely to leave you devoid of emotions as that becomes your defence mechanism to deal with it.
US psychologist Terry Petra says: "The causes of emotional burnout generally runs deep within the person. Thus, most cures will require a major commitment of time, effort and resources from both the individual as well as their support network. Stepping away from the business may very well be necessary before any significant improvement can be realised."
Nailing the symptoms
Whatever category your burnout might fall in, Dr Schlatter says you have to learn to recognise, identify and act to be able to nip the crisis in the bud.
"We normally assess the symptoms in terms of emotional, physical and mental components. For instance, we would look out for typical emotions (ups and downs), low reactive threshold for anger and/or sadness, low frustration tolerance, hopelessness (often people describe a sense of feeling trapped or at a dead end), de-personalisation and detachment, and feeling particularly low on the night before their weekday starts; physical (headaches or aches in the upper back, shoulders and neck, fatigue, loss of appetite, sleeping difficulties); reduction in positive self-care strategies (eating well, exercising and so on) and mental difficulty with thinking, concentrating, memory, completing tasks and low motivation.
"Naturally, you would also look at the ‘red flags' in the bigger picture such as environmental characteristics, social support network, personality, typical coping strategies and so on. Does the victim come home and just want to sit in front of the television? Has he given up caring about his personal relationships? Do his friends and family say he has changed? Has he given up on his personal appearance or his dreams?
Light at the end of the tunnel
The good news is (yes, it's always about breaking the good news, right?), it's easy once you begin to do it. Burnouts are not inevitable. They don't have to happen to you. You can be as ambitious as you want and you will do just fine so long as you also stop to take in a bit of the scenery along the way to the top. That big family picture you keep at your desk at work, with your spouse and your children and you smiling a mile wide - now that's the big picture. Don't lose focus of why those smiles came along in the first place. The rest will fall into place.
Take this test
Take a quick look at the usual suspects list below and be honest about how many boxes you end up ticking.
- Always feeling stressed and jaded?
- Grumpy the first thing in the morning?
- Not looking forward to the day ahead of you?
- Wish to enjoy a shut-eye at any time of the day?
Struggling for the right words to explain a concept or forgetting the name of your best friend?
- Always feeling like work is making you dull and blanked out?
- Always feeling angry, unappreciated and helpless that less-deservingcandidates are getting ahead of you? The thing is, most of these vexing states of mind are self-created.
Well, that's the good news. The best news is, there are ways to get out of this mental morass. (See how you have not been given any bad news at all? That's the first trick to avoiding a burnout. Simply look for the good news in any situation in life).
One needs to recognise the symptoms early in order to reduce the longer term effects which have known physical and immunological ramifications, says Dr Schlatter who suggests steps for prevention and cure.
- Learn basic stress reduction and self-care techniques for both ‘on the job' and ‘off the job'.
- Talk to people about how you are feeling, then do some active problem-solving about the problems you are facing - don't sit on the problems, nor on the emotions.
- Listen to people when they comment on changes in your mood or behaviour.
- Take some time off for a real break and always have something to look forward to.
- If you are in a job with potential frustration and tension ask yourself whether it is the right job for you; are you really doing what you want to be doing? If so, make sure you have some control over aspects of your job, for example, ability to show your creativity or work towards a higher level; and (for everyone) make sure there are efforts from those around you to make you feel like your contributions are worthwhile, as well as efforts for team support and so on.
- Keep up your personal interests/hobbies - the things that give you joy and pleasure.
- Be assertive. Don't take on too much responsibility simply because you can't say no.
- Have clear boundaries between work/study and home life.
- If you are at home, network with others in the same situation; don't ‘go it alone'.
- Learn to delegate and/or share responsibilities.
- For non-working parents: don't feel undermined and undervalued because you are at home all day. Anything that can be done to keep your sense of individuality/life's purpose in check is necessary. Once again, don't try to go it alone. Talk to people in similar situations to see how they manage to keep on top of things. Sharing thoughts is a powerful motivator to make a difference in your own life.