Overcoming Burnout

Burnout contributed to my almost quitting my job about a year ago. I literally wrote my resignation and tried handing it in. Some wonderfully supportive humans pulled me off the edge, but it was a challenging year or so to get through. Now I’m for the most part on the other side of it, and perhaps even thriving, but it was a long and winding road to here. Below, I’ll share some of the lessons learned personally, as well as discuss the current literature on the topic from a few workshops I’ve attended.

I work in healthcare, which is an industry very prone to this condition. Other industries which are at particular risk are law enforcement, teaching, social work. You’ll notice they all tend to have a human dynamic to them. Many of us went into the healing/giving professions because we thrive on that human interaction. But in healthcare at least, the industry has changed significantly. It is hyper-regulated, and faces enormous pressures to cut costs. While these aren’t bad inherently, in practice it means those on the ground are asked to work harder than ever and to spend more time documenting and doing paperwork than actually connecting with others. As a student of Marx, the language of the factory now applies to physicians, nurses, and others. We become alienated from our labor. We become cogs in the wheel, seen only as productive units who need to see more patients, earn more revenue.

It’s no wonder than not only burnout but mental illness and suicidality are significantly increased for healthcare providers. One could think of a continuum from stress to burnout to mental illness to suicide risk, however in some cases these can interact non-linearly. However they fit together, it can be much easier for those in distress to use the language of burnout than other mental illness terms like depression or anxiety.

Burnout poses a danger to the mind as well as the body. It can express itself as headaches, auto-immune disease, pain, fatigue, heart disease, metabolic disorder, and even suicide. It can lead to more missed work time and cause anger/aggression issues and contribute to workplace violence. For those in healthcare, it can lead to medical errors and missing important diagnostic clues when the ability to focus is diminished. In other words, it’s a public health emergency.

What is burnout then? The illustration below helps to explain. Not all stress is bad. Sometimes a little bit of stress can actually be healthy. It pushes us to grow, to expand our horizons. There’s an optimum stress point when we’re pushing the edge of our comfort zone, but learning/growing because of it. Once we move past that, we end up worn out and unable to bounce back. The literature still looks to a concept of resilience, suggesting that we can combat burnout by improving our ability to tolerate stressors. But the newest literature indicates that this thinking may be flawed. The analogy is you are just teaching frogs to learn to tolerate the temperature of boiling water in the pot. But it’s still going to kill them. The most cutting edge approaches suggest that we need to change the toxic nature of the environment instead. This is obviously significantly more work and takes more than personal change; it takes organizational buy-in at the highest levels.

Your organization may or may not be in a place to grasp the need for change to improve culture. If you are individually suffering, and don’t see much hope for changing, that’s when it can sometimes be a signal you need to go somewhere else or do something else. But many people feel trapped, particularly those in well-paying jobs or with significant debt from student loans, etc. The approach I’ve found has been to adjust how I function at work, but also to invest in more personal passions like this blog and a side hustle which lets me work with patients again directly and have a creative outlet.

Some basic tips to help you cope are below. If you need more intensive support, we offer interactive coaching on this topic.

Boundary setting is an important first step, both personally and professionally. Ask yourself – how much of yourself are you giving to everyone in your life? Is there anything left? Is it sustainable? I posted a quote at my desk to help me remember to pay attention to my own needs and capacity to give: “The only people who get upset when you set boundaries are those who benefited from you never having any to begin with.” One of my favorite authors on this topic is the Holistic Psychologist who gives daily info-graphics to help you grow and function outside of the patterns of the past.

A related concept applicable to us type-A people is to stop over-functioning. Take a moment to think in your work and family life how much of other people’s work you are doing yourself, because it’s easier than having to explain it to someone else, or because you don’t trust them to do it your way.

Look beyond the main stressor and consider the whole situation: Rarely does burnout occur in a vacuum. Sometimes the most impacted people are those who have multiple sources of pressure in their lives hitting at once. New parents, care-givers, those with declining health. I was always pretty good at handling the pressures of work. It was when my parents’ health worsened, and I tore an ankle ligament (and therefore couldn’t run for a year- a key outlet), that I started to deteriorate.

Focus on mind-body practices to improve your internal state of calm so you can roll with the punches at work and/or home. Meditation can be a huge help to tamp down the racing mind. Exercise is always good, but some forms like qi gong and yoga can be particularly useful. One of the workshops on burnout I attended spoke of “neurochemical bartending” – you want to serve yourself a good high quality cocktail of the right hormones and neuro-transmitters (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin) to counteract the bad stuff the world may throw at you (cortisol and the like). When you can come to work calm, it’s actually infectious. If you have a toxic coworker or boss, sometimes they can even moderate their own infectious anxiety or drama when they see it doesn’t stick to you.

If you’re feeling trapped at work, take a hard look at your finances. You may not be able to leave tomorrow, but you can start to build a plan to pay down debt. This may take discipline and time. But feeling like you have an out or can look forward to a change down the road can make a huge difference. You can take time to network in your field or invest in re-training to another industry where you may have more passion. Or you find a hobby (like blogging, photography) which gives you something to work your right brain after hours.

Be Prepared –this journey will not be linear – you will have set backs –There is no magic bullet, it’s multi-faceted, hard work that happens over time. If you think you may benefit from more focused support through life/career coaching, we are here to help you when you are ready.

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