Unmasking Burnout: Understanding and Combating Chronic Stress

We’re in the middle of a record heat wave here in the US, and it turns out your skin isn’t the only thing in danger of getting burned: it’s peak burnout season inside at our air-conditioned desks, too.

The frantic back-to-school routine, the anticipation of holiday festivities, and the pressure from large corporations to GET BACK TO THE OFFICE can all serve to accumulate into a simmering pot of stress. Welcome to what could be termed the ‘season of burnout’.

Burnout, a term first used by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, refers to an intense stress condition resulting in deep physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. It surpasses everyday tiredness and can impair one's ability to handle regular stressors. Manifesting as overwhelming exhaustion and cynicism, burnout isn’t just a bummer: it can derail your career, your family life, and your mental health.

Without intervention, burnout can escalate to serious health complications like depression, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

In the aftermath of the global pandemic, many individuals are facing corporate fatigue and job-related burnout. The sudden shift to remote work (and then back again), coupled with the blurring of personal and professional boundaries, has significantly increased stress levels. The pressure to remain productive and engaged in an unstable and uncertain environment has contributed to a heightened sense of exhaustion. Constant virtual meetings, limited social interaction, lack of physical separation from work, and the challenges of balancing home responsibilities with professional duties have compounded this issue. The ongoing crisis created an atmosphere of constant vigilance, leading to emotional drain. Even as we transition out of this crisis period, it’s clear that the toll on mental health has been substantial, making the recovery process a crucial focus for individuals and organizations alike

Burnout happens gradually. Psychologists Freudenberger and North charted the following 12-stage path:

  1. Initial overdrive or ambition. A familiar phase for new hires or task undertakers.
  2. Compulsion to work harder, fuelled by ambition.
  3. Self-care neglect. Sacrificing personal needs such as healthy eating and rest.
  4. Deflection of conflicts. Blaming external factors instead of acknowledging personal overexertion.
  5. Work takes precedence over non-work related needs.
  6. Denial. Blaming others for one’s impatience, viewing them as incompetent or over-demanding.
  7. Social isolation. Disconnection from friends and family, increasing cynicism.
  8. Alterations in behavior. Increased irritability, impulsive reactions to minor triggers.
  9. Feeling detached or alienated.
  10. Feelings of emptiness or anxiety leading to risky coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or overeating.
  11. Onset of depression. Feelings of hopelessness.
  12. Complete mental or physical breakdown.

All of life comes with its fair share of stress and obstacles, which are integral to our existence, especially for building resilience. However, if you feel yourself on one of those steps toward burnout, consider the following tips to help get yourself back on track:

  • Stay Active: Physical activity, even a brief walk, can improve your mood.

Potential Pitfall: In the summer heat, physical activity can feel overwhelming and might be put on the back burner, leading to decreased motivation and energy levels.

Solution: Plan your activities for the cooler times of the day, like early morning or late evening. Alternatively, consider indoor exercises such as yoga, pilates, or even dancing to your favorite tunes.

  • Maintain a Balanced Diet: a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like walnuts, flaxseed oil, and fish) can act as a natural mood enhancer.

Potential Pitfall: The temptation of summer treats and BBQs might deter you from maintaining a balanced diet.

Solution: While enjoying your summer treats, balance them out with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Including walnuts, flaxseeds, or salmon in your meals or snacks will ensure you’re getting those mood-boosting omega-3s.

  • Prioritize Quality Sleep: good sleep hygiene is crucial for rejuvenation. Avoid caffeine before bedtime, establish a calming bedtime routine, and keep smartphones out of the bedroom.

Potential Pitfall: Longer daylight hours and social activities can disrupt regular sleep patterns, leading to fatigue and lowered mood.

Solution: Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends. Use light-blocking curtains or a sleep mask to create a dark environment that supports sleep despite the longer daylight hours.

  • Seek Help: never shy away from seeking support during demanding times. You could build a self-care network among close friends and family, or even better, engage a business coach or mentor. These professionals bring a wealth of experience and can provide you with strategies tailored to your specific needs. They can help you manage your stressors while maintaining productivity and can be crucial allies in preventing burnout. Remember, seeking guidance isn’t a sign of weakness but a proactive step towards overall well-being

Potential Pitfall: Some individuals may feel embarrassed or hesitant to ask for help, believing they should handle their stressors alone.

Solution: Embrace the understanding that seeking assistance is a sign of strength and self-awareness, not a weakness. Reach out to a business coach or mentor who can provide guidance and coping strategies. Consider joining support groups or online forums where you can connect with others facing similar challenges.

In conclusion, the experience of corporate fatigue and job-related burnout in the aftermath of the pandemic is a profound issue that needs immediate attention. As we adjust to new work norms and navigate the demands of our professional and personal lives, it is essential to prioritize self-care. Whether it’s staying active, maintaining a balanced diet, ensuring quality sleep, or seeking help, we need to take proactive measures to protect our mental health. By acknowledging and addressing the symptoms of burnout, we can create a more sustainable and healthy work culture that values individual well-being. In the long run, this approach will not only benefit us as individuals but also the organizations and communities to which we belong.

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