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Shot of a mature doctor looking stressed out in a demanding work environment Image Credit: Getty Images

Washinton: We all have 24 hours in a day to spend it the way we want. To rest - whether with a walk, an extra hour of sleep or a talk with a friend - or continue to work is a matter of one’s choice.

Making space in our lives so we’re not so hurried and harried isn’t easy, especially in a culture that shames slow living. The result is, many of us may be heading towards a burnout. A common ailment in these times, burnout is caused by, among other things, social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the pressure to check work email outside of office hours and remain in the work mode even after you have left the office.

It could also be due to balancing the pressures of home and work.

A book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by US-based sisters Emily Nagoski (a health educator) and Amelia Nagoski (a choral conductor who was hospitalised for burnout) throws light on this syndrome.

Amelia Nagoski was juggling the demands of a doctoral programme when she experienced such severe abdominal pain she was hospitalised. Doctors concluded it was “just stress” and told her to relax. Turns out, she had stress-induced inflammation from burnout.

Burnout is a term easily tossed around. That’s harmless if a person is describing a tired day or week. But somebody who is actually burned out should be prepared to take serious action because it’s a condition that needs attention.

Part of the difficulty of pinpointing true burnout may be because burnout is a non-medical term. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t list it as an illness. But countries such as France, Denmark and Sweden, do recognise burnout syndrome and consider it to be a legitimate reason to take a sick day from work.

“Everybody intuitively recognises what burnout feels like in their bodies and their feelings and their thoughts,” Emily Nagoski says. “It’s like art: You know it when you see it.”

Even without an official diagnosis - or agreed upon definition - American researchers have studied burnout for decades.

American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger popularised the term in the 1970s. Soon after, American psychologist Christina Maslach developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).

Other symptoms can include frequent colds or sicknesses, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as with too much alcohol or online shopping.

Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors, the Nagoskis say in their book. It’s important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Stress, on the other hand, “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter (stressors),” the Nagoskis write.

To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors.

“They assume their stress will go away if they’re on top of things, if they’re accomplishing things and constantly checking things off their to-do list,” Emily Nagoski says.

Gender might play a role in burnout, too.

Researchers from the University of Montreal questioned 2,026 people, half women, in 63 different workplaces. Their work, published in the Annals of Work Exposure and Health, found that women reported higher levels of burnout.

Other studies have shown that rates of burnout are more or less equal among genders, although males and females experience it differently.

American lawyer and mum Anna Swain knows the feeling.

She poured her heart and soul into fixing the troubled lives of criminals who had messed up with drugs and violence only to wind up devastated when her hard work seemed pointless.

“I’d call my mum every day on my way home from the office crying,” she says. “I was either sad over a client who was having her third meth-addicted baby or crying over a shockingly rude email by opposing counsel.”

When she added motherhood to the mix, her feelings of failure increased. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody does with a first child.”

She was afraid to take a step back from the hamster wheel. “Even when I clean the house, I think, ‘Well, I should take the opportunity to listen to a podcast. Maybe I can grow as a person.’

“Honestly, I’d grow more if I chose to be in silence and let my mind wander.”

Stillness gave her an opportunity to daydream. That opened the door to creativity.

“I started creating little poems and rhymes in my head. I felt exhilarated,” she says. Eventually, Swain wrote a children’s book. “I felt a sense of purpose again,” she says.

Big 3 symptoms of burnout:

■ Emotional exhaustion

■ Cynicism

■ Feeling ineffective, according to MBI, a survey designed to measure employee burnout in the workforce.

How you can battle burnout

1. Movement matters

Movement and deep breathing allow your body to complete its stress response cycle by releasing tension that has built up through the day, say Emily and Amelia Nagoski.

Engage in physical activity with friends instead of plugging your ears with headphones.

Shared laughter and togetherness help you feel safe and lower stress levels, the Nagoskis say.

2. Are your job demands higher than your job resources?

“Look at the balance between job demands and job resources,” burnout expert Paula Davis-Laack says. A job demand is “anything in your work that takes consistent effort or energy, such as meetings, emails or finding new clients.

Job resources are “motivational, energy-giving aspect of your work.”

That list includes high-quality relationships with colleagues, autonomy, the opportunity to work on new things, having a mentor and receiving clear feedback.

If your job demands are high and job resources are low, ask your boss for small changes to shift the balance. Davis-Laack calls these smalls shifts TNT: tiny noticeable things.

3. Create a corporate culture

Employers influence burnout, too. “Organisations should enforce reasonable work hours,” says Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.

Companies can prevent employee burnout by developing a culture that encourages vacations and breaks.

In France, for example, the Right to Disconnect law gives employees time away from email and phone calls after work hours. Promoting flexibility programmes also helps prevent burnout because it allows employees control over when, where and how they work, Schawbel says. Think 30-hour workweeks, telecommuting or job sharing.

4. Care for your body, mind and soul

“When bad things happen, who do you go to?” American psychologist Sheryl Ziegler asks. “Spirituality is valuable, no matter your beliefs. If you don’t have a community, make one. It’s that important.”

5. Learn time management — set boundaries with social media

Use the internet for help, such as ordering groceries, but limit scrolling to 10 minutes a day.

Also, it’s OK to remove activities from the calendar (or quit them completely) so you can exercise or simply unwind.

— Washington Post