Post No.: 0413
Stress is a physiological and psychological response to a real or perceived threat. But not all stress is bad – short-lived, short-term acute stress is a sign of motivation and physiological preparedness, and not just because we have a strong motivation to get away from things that are considered aversive but we have a strong motivation to seek things that are considered desirable. The symptoms of acute nervousness and excitement are mirror images, so you could try to convince yourself that these symptoms are actually because you are excited e.g. you’re about to start a match and your heart rate is raised, you’re feeling a little sweaty and your breathing is faster – it’s because you’re feeling pumped and ready! This strategy is far easier and more beneficial than trying to convince yourself to ‘calm down’, ‘not worry’ or ‘don’t be nervous’ because of the incongruence between your physiology and your thoughts.
However, it causes us health problems when stress turns into unrelenting, long-term chronic stress. Even though something like an event that causes PTSD might be an acute moment, it’s really the lasting memory, the incessant rumination and ongoing effect of that event on one’s mind that’s the problem. So acute stress is often fine and sometimes even healthy, but chronic stress (whether intense or low level) is always bad and unhealthy. A bit of stress is fine and even optimal for maximising performance, but sustained and unremitting chronic stress is not and reduces performance. Fluffystealthkitten elaborated more on the topic of stress in Post No.: 0386.
In this post, I really want to talk specifically about burnout. Burnout can be defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and ineffective at work, cynicism and feeling disconnected from your own thoughts and feelings (stress-induced ‘depersonalisation’).
Signs of burnout from work or other duties include – not being able to switch off from even thinking about work never mind doing work, the boundaries between one’s work life and home life blur, there’s a constant feeling of pressure for having too much to do, dreading the day, and skipping meals or missing sleep for working longer. One’s mood deteriorates, such as feeling more irritable, erratic, impatient, feeling unable to delegate, becoming more perfectionist yet the quality of one’s work drops, and more mistakes are made. One’s health deteriorates, such as feeling exhausted, headaches, migraines, tummy aches, aches in the back or elsewhere, eczema, catching more colds than usual (these symptoms will be different for each individual but will tend to be consistent for each particular individual), and if it all doesn’t relent then eventual collapse, depression or anxiety.
The solutions are to take regular breaks within every single day, and longer breaks as weekends and holidays – and don’t ever feel guilty for it otherwise you won’t feel rested i.e. don’t think about what work you’ve got to do or should or could be working on whilst you’re on a break. Protecting one’s sleep is a crucial step, as well as consuming a healthily varied and balanced diet, partaking in regular exercise, not drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, incorporating little positive experiences every single day like maintaining a social life, being amongst nature, and basically all the same things that are required for anyone to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s better to work steadily, with scheduled work and enforced rest periods that are regular and reasonably structured, so that you reduce the chance of burnout. We need the self-discipline to get away from our work and to take breaks when we should be taking them! Repeated periods of ‘bingeing then detoxing’ generally aren’t healthy in any kind of context. It’s not always easy to follow these steps yet it’s not magic either.
If you regard something as fun then you’ll want to do it every day and maybe every minute if you could. But we can risk burnout even when doing things we really want to do and are meaningful to us if we’re not achieving a healthy life balance. We must also somehow balance doing things for free as volunteers because we’re being kind and want to be kind. Jobs that are meaningful and relatively selfless, like nursing, caring for children, the disabled or elderly, teaching, or pushing for social or environmental justice, are also jobs that tend to be chronically underpaid for what they contribute to society. Not complaining about the personal sacrifices, taking on greater responsibilities, making do with little, and even using our own money to fulfil our jobs when the resources provided to us are insufficient, may lead to a lot of burnout.
We may argue that since these roles aren’t done primarily for the money then they shouldn’t pay (as much) money – but we shouldn’t be taken advantage of and it’s no good for society if those who do a lot for society aren’t being looked after and sufficiently rewarded. People who don’t perform such roles in society should recognise the contributions that such relatively low-paid jobs give to society, both in monetary and non-monetary terms e.g. if there is a breadwinner and a stay-at-home-parent in a household then the former should recognise what would happen to them and the family if the latter didn’t do their work everyday, and maybe how much it’d cost if they hired someone else to do all of those things instead.
So to avoid burnout, we must look after ourselves too, otherwise we’ll be good for nobody else. We need to focus some time on ourselves rather than just on other people’s needs, otherwise we’ll risk exhaustion. It’s not selfish to take periodic breaks, to ask for help, to say, “No” or to even walk away if a job is not sustainable for your own health. Even the greatest saints can’t do everything.
Now it’s right that we should try to separate our work time and non-work time, yet it can be unrealistic to expect to not care about our work when we have responsibilities just because the clock hits a certain time! So we might have to somehow make work and the rest of one’s life gel together in harmony rather than separately. Realise also that you won’t be alone – if you experience burnout then it’s part of a larger problem in society, and to solve this larger problem you’ll need to get together with others in a similar position, or who also care, and rally for better working conditions, a pay that’s proportional to what you contribute to society and so forth. Having a meaningful life shouldn’t mean sacrificing your own personal health or not being able to make a good living. Woof.
One should logically ‘make hay while the sun shines’, but only up to a point because one can mentally burnout. Within each day or at least the vast majority of days, one must eat well, sleep well, do some regular physical activity and participate in some leisure activity. Working for a few years until you reach burnout then not working much at all the next to try to recover from it is analogous to dehydrating oneself one moment then over-hydrating oneself the next. A healthy life doesn’t work like that. When hungry, eat; when thirsty, drink; when tired, sleep – and when you’re doing these things, don’t think about anything else either e.g. don’t try to do work during mealtimes.
Set a daily routine – the times you’ll feel hungry and tired should be regular if your body clocks are healthy and regular. Maybe keep a diary too. The level of pressure during a task must be neither too little nor too much for an optimum performance. A steady, regular progress is best in the long run, so pace it all out nicely. Top endurance runners during competitions don’t swing wildly between phases of sprinting then stopping; albeit short bursts of work interleaved with complete rest periods or other activities can work well in other contexts. (Some swear by the Pomodoro Technique.)
‘Time distortion’ in this context means that we have less time available to complete what we want than we tend to think(!) Projects tend to take much longer (and cost more) than we hoped, planned or anticipated. When starting a new project or venture, we tend to be incredibly optimistic, enthusiastic and energetic at the beginning, but then reality hits us because we realise we have been overoptimistic and have underestimated the barriers. But if we understand that this will likely happen, and pace ourselves better in the middle, then we can get to the home straight and find that our energy will return for the final push.
If you have experienced burnout or a serious trauma that has resulted in chronic negative ruminations – focus on the benefits that have flowed from the experience. You may need to consult a medical professional to guide you through reframing your experience, but beneficial perspectives include – becoming a stronger and wiser person as a result, how it uncovered personal strengths you didn’t realise you had before, appreciating the positive aspects of your life more than ever, the strengthening of important fluffy relationships, an increased confidence and skill in communicating your feelings, a better empathy with others who’ve experienced similar events, forgiveness or compassion even for those who may have hurt you, and how your life is better as a result of the unforeseen opportunities it has presented. Wish others well, which might help you to understand that you are not alone in your experiences and feelings, and perhaps there are even those worse off than you around the world. (If you think your life is bad then chances are lots of people are still having it worse. Not that this means that you should therefore forgo your own self-care – work hard but understand that life is not a suffering competition.) Be mindfully present more often, take stock of what you have and can do right now, paint an achievable plan for a positive future, and ask for help if you need it.
In the end, we are good for no one if we don’t look after our own health and needs too, and employers should also understand this to optimise productivity and employee turnover. If we reach the stage of burnout then productivity drops, often precipitously, hence it’s short-sighted to be pushed too hard for the sake of short-term gains. It’s like sustaining a physical injury after being pushed too hard in the sporting season – it’s counterproductive because you’ll become temporarily weaker rather than stronger, and lose instead of gain time or results due to the need to recover and rehabilitate.
And there’s great wisdom in keeping life as simple as possible. Like with stress, it’s okay to have a bit of complexity now and again, but it’s healthier for life overall for it to be as simple as possible – and part of this approach is to concentrate on what we really need rather than merely want, and part of that in turn is to stop comparing what you have with what other people supposedly have.