Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands (Smith, Segal, Robinson, & Segal, 2018).
I was recently working with a group of highly motivated and successful executives. They worked in a fast-paced, growing, and ever-changing agency with the determination to be the best in their field of work. Their goals and aims were lofty, and it was invigorating to be a part of the change, momentum, and excitement.
I would go home after a day of working alongside this team and dream of the possibilities for them, their agency, and even for me as a part of the process! It was not until I was several months in, with a few snags and a slew of regular meetings, that the burnout began to surface. In one particular meeting, one executive was looking more exhausted than usual. In the midst of our conversation on change, growth, and expectations of staff, along with the rapid speed at which the agency was moving, the executive announced: “I am burnt out!” This silenced the room. No one knew what to say and everyone diverted eye contact.
Now let’s be honest: in the vast majority of cases, burnout is not so boldly put on the table (quite literally in this case). However, this executive team all looked at this person – some with tears in their eyes, others with sheer terror – and shook their heads in agreement, but then carried on with the meeting uncertain of what to do next. I sat in silence and thought, I need to connect with this person. How do I support this person? What can be done as an agency to ensure that the teams, staff, and ourselves do not get to this point?
I went home and took some time to reflect on my interactions with this individual over the past few months. In my reflections, I found that there were clear symptoms of burnout that this person was experiencing:
Signs of exhaustion: They often mentioned insomnia and that they were not sleeping well when we spoke.
Frustration: This was clearly observed with staff they engaged with and projects they were working on. The level of patience this individual once had was quickly dwindling as the weeks went on.
Annoyance: When issues or concerns were brought to their attention, this individual was seen as abrasive, short, and quick tempered – not to mention their lack of energy to seek information on the issues brought to light or find appropriate resolutions.
Lack of self-care: They were often observed eating lunch at their desk, not eating lunch, or not having a break at all. This individual would often comment that there was “no time” to work out, see friends, or engage with colleagues at any level other than direct work conversations.
Concerns with family life: Caring for children, having a spouse that travelled, and bearing the weight of the majority of home responsibilities began to take a toll.
Illness: Reflecting on the previous months, this executive had begun to take more time off and often spoke of feeling unwell with more frequent doctor visits.
These symptoms make it clear that burnout is not something to be taken lightly. Burnout is also not something that occurs overnight, in a couple of days, over a week, or even two – it is a slow and steady process. Burnout is insidious; it creeps up on us and can linger for some time. We may try to fool burnout, but it almost always wins. It wins by impacting our work life, family life, and friendships. We may end up on stress leave with illness, or even with the loss of friendships and relationships. So, how can we take charge and outsmart burnout?
As burnout sneaks up on us, it gives us the gift of symptoms and warning signs that allow us to shatter it into pieces if we can be brave. If you recognize these signs or symptoms in yourself, your loved ones, friends, or colleagues, take the time to talk about burnout with a trusted individual or professional in order to find the best way to manage it and move forward.
Taking care of yourself is the only way to ensure burnout doesn’t get to you first!