By Dr. Kate Truitt
In our practice we have been talking a lot with our patients about being overcome by a strange new constellation of emotional experiences. They share the optimism they once had. They’re concerned they’re not living up to the expectations of other people in their personal and professional lives—much less the expectations they have for themselves. They talk about not feeling as excited or engaged as they once did about rising to the daily challenges of work and home life, nor pursuing solutions to them. They feel physically drained, not just at the end of the day, but constantly.
Do we have a new epidemic here? Are they suddenly suffering from depression or overwhelming anxiety? Having some of these feelings may make sense to some, given the times we’re in, one of isolation and disconnect, which will naturally tend to numb the mind and dampen the spirit. Beware, though—these feelings and reflections could be warning you that you are heading toward burnout.
Burnout is not depression or overwhelming anxiety—these are different conditions. The main element that brings on burnout is stress that builds over time, and according the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout, that stress has “not been successfully managed.” The WHO calls burnout an “occupational phenomenon,” and its formal definition is:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.”
In this article I want to take you through a few little brain exercises to help you examine whether you’re heading toward burnout, keeping it in the context of our new reality of working from home. And I want to go a bit beyond that WHO definition of burnout as merely an “occupational phenomenon.” In the context of the Coronavirus Pandemic it goes beyond workplace burnout to what might be called isolation burnout or what we’ve been calling Coronavirus burnout. These unprecedented times increase pressures in our external environment, bringing change to our internal environment. Stress, worry, uncertainty, and fear about the world we live in does not stop at the threshold to our homes—it infiltrates it.
To determine whether you are susceptible to, or already experiencing burnout, it is important to understand what burnout is, because although it can masquerade as anxiety and depression, it’s in a space of its own. Burnout is not something that quickly takes over your mind. It is a gradual process that escalates over time, and one of its core causes is chronic stress.
Burnout is not considered a mental illness, but it can exacerbate other psychological conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We know and teach in our practices that the mind and body are inextricably connected, and the slow tsunami of stress that creates burnout can also take a toll on our body, lowering our immunity, making us more susceptible to colds, flus and other viruses. It can put a damper on our motivation, making us neglect our good diet and exercise habits, which just intensifies the symptoms of burnout, such as feeling tired and physically drained all the time.
That means that while everyone needs burnout awareness in these times. People who are striving to heal from other chronic psychological or physical health conditions need to be especially mindful of the warning signs of burnout.
Are You Susceptible to Burnout?
First, let’s look at whether you are susceptible to burnout. I have created a list of three questions that can help people move toward the answer to that. Take a few moments and consider these observational questions:
- Have your diet, drinking (think alcohol) and exercise habits changed over the past few months, and have your feelings about these different behaviors changed lately? I ask this in a two-part way because changes in your frame of mind can get at the “why” of what you’re feeling.
- Are you working longer or shorter hours than you were before, and how do you feel about the time you are committing to work—has your productivity gone up or down?
- Do you notice an emotional reaction or shift when you get notifications from work, such as increased stress from a text message, email or a slack notification?
Does thinking about some of these questions set off an alert for you? A yellow alert? Maybe a full-on red alert? If it does, revisit the list above and write down three things you would do differently related to those issues. Identify some opportunities to make a positive shift in what has been happening. You don’t have to feel pressure to act on them; getting them out in the open is the most important thing at first.
Now you might better understand whether you are on the way to being burned out. If you don’t think you are, still move ahead to the next group of questions so you have more of an awareness of burnout, in case you encounter it in the future. The next exercise helps us find out whether someone is actually suffering from the effects of burnout. For this, I want you to consider five areas of questions:
- How do you feel about each day? Do you wake up with optimism?
- Each day, do you feel like you do at least one thing that matters to you and the world around you, and do you receive acknowledgment for your contribution from yourself or others. (Yes, your own acknowledgment is very important too! I’ll address that in a moment.)
- How is your sleep? Do you feel emotionally or physically fatigued? Are you often ruminating at night? Have you set any boundaries in place to ensure you sleep well?
- How motivated are you? Has your interest, excitement, or engagement changed? Do things that used to perk you up still perk you up?
- Do you care about the things you’re doing? Do you feel that your work has meaning or that it matters?
If you answered any of these questions differently than you would have one year ago you may be on the road to burnout. They are meant to assess your emotional well-being and meaning-making (how you personally perceive your world), which are core tools that protect against burnout.
If you are frequently feeling gloomy, like life and work (and you) are burdensome and feel constantly overwhelmed, it is time for you to do something. So, let’s see look at some little self-compassion and self-care hacks to help you…
Burnout Hack: Finding the Positives
When burnout starts to take hold of our lives, our optimism is one of the things it takes with it. In that first question I am not trying to imply that everyone should be swinging their feet out of bed, giddy with excitement to meet each new day. Many of our days are filled with challenges, some of them tough. But when our brains are functioning normally, we see challenges as exciting and as opportunities for growth, but as we slide down into burnout, our inner motivation to look for and grasp those opportunities also begins to slip.
At the end of each your days I would like you to take a few moments and try to recall a few bright spots, or positive moments, in that day. It could be someone’s smile, chirping birds, or a shared laugh. There are always moments in each day that are positive or hopeful. Find one of those moments, and then stop for a bit and focus on it, anchoring it in your mind and body. Think about why it made you feel good and hopeful.
By being in touch with our emotional world and intentionally finding positive moments, we can create moments of optimism. These can lead can lead to finding opportunities for overcoming challenges.
Creating Space and Time for You
Back in our old pre-pandemic “real world,” we were better able to create a clear delineation between our work time and personal time. A 30-minute commute works wonders with this—you get in the car, drive to work and start working somewhere else besides home, and when you are done with your workday, you get in the car and drive home. Still, those who experienced burnout in the old real world tended to rideshare their workplace stress and problems home with them on the evening commute, but at least they had some of the benefit of that physical act of separation.
At the boundaries between our professional lives and personal lives lie some of the biggest stressors that can lead to burnout. We can’t disconnect one from the other, and we shouldn’t try to, because both of them make up who we are, and they are intertwined. Having said that, they both need to have their own spaces and times. That has been made a little difficult as millions of us have adjusted (or not) to working from home, so we need to have a little discipline around the issue of boundaries.
Somehow, we need to purposefully make that separation happen in our new real world. And this includes separating in not only space, but in time as well.
People who are working from home need to be serious about creating a clear, scheduled structure that allows the brain to distinguish work time from personal time. Making a clear temporal distinction between the two promotes emotional health and well-being, and will help protect against burnout. If that separation doesn’t exist, our brain feels like it is chronically “on.” Again, this requires discipline until the brain can view it as second nature. It means making plenty of time when screens are down and the news is turned off. Chronic exposure to news reports is causing many of our patients to be come numb to it and that dissociation results in increased risk for burnout as well as higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Self-Compassion is Crucial in Warding off Burnout
Making time for yourself, creating space between your work areas, finding those daily bright spots, and looking for opportunities to make positive shifts in what I happening around you are all part of putting self-compassion and self-healing to work. Take interest in your internal world and what’s going on in there. Spend moments being present with yourself. Acknowledge your accomplishments, and give yourself some grace when you fall down. Prioritize little things that are not such little things, like sleep, eating well, and giving your brain and body a rest from screens and the noise around you.
Self-compassion may be a new term for you. It’s not something often taught through the rigors of daily life, but the idea behind putting self-compassion into practice is simple: Treat yourself with the loving kindness, the care, the grace and forgiveness with which you treat those you love the most in your life.
See related videos below on burnout, and learn more in our comprehensive Telecommuting series and our Burnout series on the Dr. Kate Truitt & Associates You Tube Channel
Burnout is Not Depression or Anxiety. So What is it?
In this video Dr. Kate Truitt unpacks the emotional symptoms of burn out and how it differs from depression and anxiety. Understanding the nuances of burnout is crucial for creating an action plan to prevent burn out as well as designing a burn out recovery journey. Knowledge is power – come learn about burnout and how it impacts your mind and body, and then learn some hacks to stop burnout from taking over your life.
Beat Burnout: Transitioning Your Day for Success
Protecting against burnout or sponsoring your burnout recovery means setting healthy boundaries with your time at the end of each day. In these days of remote working it can be even harder than usual to transition the day from work to play. Join Dr. Kate Truitt in learning how to incorporate the Self-Havening Touch plus CPR for the Amygdala (let’s Create Personal Resiliency!) to help your brain know the time to drive and work hard is over and the opportunity for rest and rejuvenation is upon you.
A Guided Meditation for Learning from Worry & Connecting with Inner Wisdom
Emotions exist in our life to teach us about ourselves and the world around us. In this guided meditation Dr. Kate Truitt will help you learn more about your specific worries or concerns and connect with your internal wisdom.
Managing Triggers During Your Burnout Recovery
When we’re burned out, even the smallest intrusion on our time can activate a trigger response of annoyance, frustration, overwhelm, and even fatigue or depressive symptoms. Join Dr. Kate Truitt to unpack why this happens in our mind and body and to learn a quick technique called CPR for the Amygdala to reduce reactivity and even HEAL your mind and body back into a balanced and empowered state of homeostasis.