HOW TO PREVENT BURNOUT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

prevent buronout

Human burnout is serious stuff.  But would you know how to put the brakes on to prevent it happening to you?  Having that self-care knowledge just might help avert succumbing to burnout and its potentially long-term adverse health consequences.

When burnout bites we’ve over-reached our mental, physical and emotional breaking-point.

Often the danger is being oblivious to the warning signals, or choosing to try and ignore them, or in some cases, simply not knowing how to get off the burnout conveyor belt before it becomes too late. 

Burnout doesn’t spring up out-of-the-blue.  It begins gradually, python-like, sneakily and increasingly squeezing the life out of you over time.  You can keep stretching a rubber band, but at some point, it will… SNAP.

Have you ever known the constant feeling of being everywhere but nowhere? Or, having to force yourself to spear into every day feeling completely spent and sapped of all energy?  Or, continually feeling like you’re stumbling around in a thick dark fog, mind-numbingly stricken with an overwhelming sense of helplessness?   When this is your ‘normal’, you may already be slipping and sliding towards burnout.  Not only is health being put at risk, but often, so too are jobs and relationships.

Generally we think of burnout as happening in the Workplace.  Certainly it is prevalent in workplaces, but an overwhelmed and chronically-stressed mum or carer could be just as vulnerable to burnout in a home-life situation.

WHAT IS BURNOUT IN A NUTSHELL?

Burnout is a state of emptiness after prolonged hyper-stress presenting as full-blown mental, physical and emotional exhaustion impairing personal productivity and likely to negatively impact immune system functioning and interpersonal relationships.  Many related psychological and physiological effects including long-term changes in health may occur and therefore getting early treatment plays an important role in the speed and quality of recovery. 

WHAT ARE COMMON BURNOUT SIGNS & SYMPTOMS?

Paying attention to signs and symptoms associated with burnout gives you an opportunity to take evasive action early.  Some of the common indicators are best separated into 3 groups: physical, emotional and behavioural.

PHYSICAL INDICATORS:

  • Flat-out fatigued most of the time.
  • Frequent proneness to sickness, especially colds and flus.
  • Persistent headaches, stomach aches, nausea and muscle pains.
  • Major shifts in eating and sleeping patterns.

EMOTIONAL INDICATORS:

  • Flooded with feelings of failure and self-doubt.
  • Outlook overwhelmingly cynical and pessimistic.
  • Lacking meaning in life, feeling dispirited and defeated.
  • Feeling detached and all alone.
  • Lacking motivation.
  • Feeling trapped and powerless.

BEHAVIOURAL INDICATORS:

  • Retreating from everyday responsibilities.
  • Perpetual procrastination.
  • Frequently directing one’s frustrations towards others.
  • Regular absences from work, or arriving late and leaving early.
  • Reliance on alcohol, drugs or food to cope.
  • Becoming isolated by disengagement with others.

WHAT INCREASES PRONENESS TO BURNOUT?

Causes that may place us at an increased risk of burnout generally relate to lifestyle, work-life and personality traits.  Examples of potential contributing factors include:

LIFESTYLE RISKS:

  • Lack of a strong supportive network of relationships.
  • Difficulty relaxing and/or socialising.
  • Misuse of legal or illegal substances to help cope with life.
  • Over-commitment of responsibilities.
  • Poor quality dietary intake and frequent insufficient sleep.

WORK-LIFE RISKS:

  • Too high of an expectation on oneself.
  • Work efforts unrecognized, unappreciated and unrewarded.
  • Performing unchallenging, monotonous tasks.
  • Pressure and demands unreasonable or unrealistic.
  • Feeling inadequately skilled or trained for job role.
  • Directionless and/or dysfunctional work environment. 

PERSONALITY TRAITS:

  • Perfectionist.
  • Reluctant to delegate to others.
  • Sarcastic and/or cynical attitude.
  • Pessimistic mindset.
  • A need to control others.

WORKPLACE IMPACTS OF BURNOUT

When burnout goes unnoticed and unaddressed in places of work, there are many ways in which it will likely impact.  Some of those ways include increased presenteeism and absenteeism, heightened risks of mistakes and accidents, reduction in job satisfaction, increases in interpersonal conflicts, poor morale, lowered productivity and higher staff turnover.

POSITIVE STEPS TO HELP PREVENT BURNOUT

Value self-care.  Keep your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing in-check by regularly self-reflecting and self-evaluating against known factors that contribute to both chronic stress and burnout. 

Take action early, especially if you start finding yourself continually feeling over-stretched, depleted, sensing helplessness, lacking enjoyment in life and disengaging socially.

Make it your first priority to talk with your GP.  Consider also seeking additional support for your wellbeing from an experienced Psychologist or Professional Counsellor who can give you skills and strategies to better manage stressors, increase resiliency, and help improve your outlook.

Here are other positive steps that may help keep you from being blindsided by burnout:

CONNECT:  Open up and engage with a partner, family and friends.  Get their help in discovering how you can invest more quality time with them.  Build closer friendships at work and in your wider social circle.  Show willingness to engage.  Develop the knack of listening and learning from others and finding out what gives them the most meaning in life. Humans are made for companionship and community, so strengthen this area of your life.  Keep yourself from becoming isolated.

GIVE NEGATIVITY THE FLICK:  Learn to shaft pessimistic thoughts.  Shift thinking to a positive solutions focus.  Write down reoccurring problem thoughts and ask yourself, “Is this really the truth?”  When we’re feeling low we tend to more easily accept and hold onto negative beliefs, so challenge them often so you can correct any unhelpful narrative.  Dispose of negative thoughts by rephrasing them with an optimistically-oriented alternative starting with, “Wouldn’t it be nice if… “.  And, as far as it is practical to do so, stay clear of people who constantly talk negatively because they’re infectious.

REIMAGINE WORK-LIFE:  If you are in a job that’s unfulfilling, monotonous, or too pressurised, then look for another employer or consider retraining or reskilling to do a different role at your current place of employment.  If finding another job isn’t practical at the moment then learn to reframe how you view your work-life.  For example, be consciously grateful for the job as a source of income that offers you independence.  Identify what you do enjoy about your work or can do to make it more meaningful.  Perhaps you look forward to the opportunity to mingle over lunch with colleagues, excelling in satisfying a customer with a product or service, thinking creatively and coming up with ideas for business growth, or being willing to share a workload to help out a colleague etc.

MINDFUL MOVEMENT, SLEEP AND HEALTHY EATING:  Regular exercise is well known to provide mental and physical health benefits.  Both body and brain benefit. It is a stress-reliever, natural relaxer and can help improve sleep.  Mindful movement is being consciously aware of the need to physically move often and to do so proactively and mindfully.  Sleep too must be a priority.  Sleep is an active process and without adequate sleep the brain and body doesn’t get to repair and rejuvenate properly keeping us from functioning optimally.  If a good night’s rest is a struggle, determine and remedy the problem for your state of wellbeing.  Be conscious of what you’re eating.  Avoid high fat and sugar-laden foods that can lead to mind-fog and lethargy.  Food influences mood.  What you choose to consume is just as important to you mentally as it is physically.

SHIELD YOURSELF FROM SUBSTANCE MISUSE:  Reduce or quit dependencies on tobacco, alcohol or drugs as these tend to undermine coping-abilities and/or have adverse health effects which are likely to exacerbate stress or burnout.

PRIORITISE REST & RELAXATION:  Schedule regular holidays so you can recharge your batteries.  Avoid taking any work with you on vacation.  Reduce screen-time and turn-off mobile phone notifications.  If you are feeling unwell, then don’t be afraid to remove yourself from a work environment and utilise personal leave.  Learn mindfulness exercises and progressive muscle relaxation.  Build these into your daily routine.  Plan ahead for your weekends. Focus on adventuring to new places, or make time for hobbies and interests you really enjoy. 

BE A BOUNDARY-SETTER:  Learn to delegate rather than take everything on-board yourself.  Strive for excellence but don’t put yourself under the pressure of achieving unrealistic perfectionism.  Block-out rest and recreational times for yourself in your calendar.  Refuse to be manipulated by the demands of others.  Learn to be assertive which may mean having to say “no” to certain requests.  Only agree doing what you enjoy and for which you have the required time and energy.

Live happier and healthier, stress-less, develop an optimistic mindset, and be proactive to prevent burnout from ever bearing down on you.


ROHAN WATSON is a member of the Australian Counselling Association and a general member of the International Association of Applied Neuroscience.  He holds qualifications in Psychology, Counselling and Education from Monash University and USQ.  As a Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Mental Health Researcher, Rohan is dedicated to helping unlock the potential in people to live life happily and more purposefully. He provides specialist counselling and wellbeing coaching services to people from all walks and seasons of life by phone, video or face-to-face.  He has facilitated and delivered mental health programs across rural and remote Australia and provides professional psychotherapy services to employees at all levels nationally through EAP based services.  Rohan has a special interest in the online delivery of mental wellness programs and his current research for a Master’s thesis is focusing on early intervention mental wellbeing in SMEs.