Burnout: A Growing Epidemic

Burnout: A Growing Epidemic

In today's fast-paced, competitive society, many of us are constantly "on." To keep up, I used to allow my anxiety to take the wheel. It was my fuel, and not in a good way.

I've felt anxious since childhood, but I didn't become aware of what I was experiencing until my mid-20s. I thought that the tight, constricted feelings in my chest and throughout my body were normal; I thought living in constant fear of social situations and being fired was normal. This fear was strong enough to give me the energy to keep working, working, working, even while drifting in and out of depressive episodes.

I could barely get out of bed or shower, but I still dragged myself out of bed and onto the bus every morning. My anxiety had caused me to be so afraid of slowing down or failing, and I'd unknowingly grown to rely on it. For all intents and purposes, I was "functioning." My meticulously organized to-do list gave me the structure I needed to avoid falling apart and collapsing in an exhausted pile of nerves.

I could not stop because doing so would mean I had to confront my reality. I convinced myself that my work and personal responsibilities were more important than I was, and so I prioritized them over myself. It's no wonder I burnt out at some point in 2017. I was still accomplishing my work tasks, but my attitude had changed. Each day was a meaningless drag. Despite having no energy, I was able to go through the motions by living in chronic dissociation on autopilot. That's the thing with burnout — it sneaks up on you. It builds over time, and without a sense of awareness, it can be insidious.

What is burnout?

First off — YES, burnout is a real thing. Burnout was first discussed in the scientific literature in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger¹, who had started to notice physical and behavioral symptoms in clinic staff. These days, burnout is recognized as an occupational disease in at least 9 European countries². In the US, burnout is often studied in the context of healthcare staff³. It's even been called an epidemic, with one-half of physicians and one-third of nurses reporting burnout symptoms⁴. No matter your occupation, I think most people can relate to feeling burnt out at some point or another. That's the problem. Talking with my friends, I realize that many of us are burnt out these days.

Burnout is essentially a state of apathy, closely related to depression, that can have serious implications. Just like stress, burnout is a serious condition that's potentially associated with actual negative physical side effects. In fact, burnout was identified as a risk factor for heart problems as early as 1991⁵. Despite this, I feel that our culture attempts to glorify burnout. We admire those who can work 24/7 without taking breaks or vacations, as if their exhaustion is a badge of honor. But in reality, burnout is not something to be proud of. It's a warning sign that we need to take better care of ourselves, our mental and physical health, and our priorities.

Researchers have hypothesized that burnout actually decreases productivity overall⁶, which makes intuitive sense. At every opportunity, I push for a new societal outlook in which we stop buying into this idea that it's optimal to keep climbing continuously higher and faster with little regard for rest. Taking breaks is not a weakness, and it might actually help productivity in the long-term. We need to be wary of burnout and adjust our lifestyles as needed, because in today's society, we are all at risk.

How can we prevent and mitigate burnout?

Our society desperately needs to pursue a culture in which we prioritize mental health⁷. Once burnout sets in, it takes significant time and effort to move past it. Better than addressing it once it's already happened is preventing it before onset. There are many factors that go into the development of burnout, but most sources agree that stress is the main ingredient. Specifically, poorly-managed stress can spiral into burnout. Now, the burden doesn't fall solely on us individuals to prevent burnout; workplaces often have resources to support their employees’ mental well-being, and many already provide extended lunches, nap rooms, wellness stipends, yoga classes, and third-party therapy sessions. But while the less progressive companies are catching up to the new status quo, we can still manage our stress in the meantime.

There are many ways to manage stress, and you need to find what works for you. Here are the things I do / have done to reduce my stress levels:

  1. Transfer projects and responsibilities off your plate. Or, re-evaluate your goals and deadlines to see whether there's any wiggle room. Maybe you don't need to hold yourself to such high standards (it's not worth it if it comes at the cost of your mental health). I know many people don't have the luxury of adjusting their hours and workload, and that is an issue with American work culture.
  2. Meditate regularly. This not only helps me form a healthy sense of detachment from my work (meaning I no longer place it above my own needs), but it also helps my brain function better to make work easier. If sitting with your eyes closed isn't your idea of fun, you can do your own form of meditation, like yoga or coloring.
  3. Take breaks. That means breaks during the day, and longer breaks like vacations when you can. Go for a walk during the workday or call a friend. Sometimes a mental health day spent at home doing your favorite hobbies can be so helpful.
  4. Go to therapy, or self-learn cognitive behavioral therapy. I am a firm believer that anyone and everyone can benefit from therapy, and I know firsthand the benefits that CBT can have. If you can't adjust how many hours you're putting in at work or how many projects you have, therapy is an excellent resource to learn effective stress management skills from a trained professional.

I'm still getting over my burnout. Some days, I just don't have the energy to do all the things I "should" be doing. And so on those types of days, I do what I can and pick things back up when I feel up to it. Like a lot of people, I want to perform well at my job and do my part to help the environment, but these things can't come at the cost of our mental health. We are the ones who get to make that choice😤

And so, I've been more lenient with myself lately. That means that once in a while, I opt for take-out instead of cooking at home, even though I know I'll get plastic containers to add to my growing collection. It means that sometimes I order stuff off Amazon instead of buying it at a local store, because I simply don't have the energy to leave the house. In certain moments I choose convenience, because that convenience serves an important purpose: reducing my stress, protecting my mental health, and conserving my energy. I think the important thing is reflecting on this choice, being aware of it, and striving to build stamina over time (like gradually reducing the number of takeout meals per month). Please, don't judge yourself for needing to take it easy once in a while. It doesn't mean you're a failure. It means it's time to take care of yourself.

We need to slow down and start giving ourselves credit for the little things. It's too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of modern-day society. This world is stressful, and life moves so quickly these days. So take a deep breath and do what you can. What are some ways that you can reduce burnout in your life?

  1. Freudenberger, H. (1974). Staff Burn-Out. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x
  2. Lastovkova, A., Javurkova, A., Pechova, P., & Krizova, E. (2018). Burnout Syndrome as an occupational disease in the European Union: an exploratory study. Industrial Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5889935/
  3. Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P., & Jackson, S. E. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(1), 103-111. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/
  4. Reith, T. P. (2018, December). Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review. Cureus. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6367114/
  5. Appels, A., Schouten, E. G., & Boshuizen, H. C. (1991). Burnout as a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 14(5), 423-441. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00844834
  6. Dewa, C. S., Loong, D., Bonato, S., Joosen, MCW., & Onate, K. (2014). How does burnout affect physician productivity? A systematic literature review. BMC Health Services Research, 14, 325. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4112825/
  7. Marquez, P. V., Saxena, S., & Sharan, P. (2016). Making Mental Health a Global Priority. Cerebrum, 2016, cer-13-16. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198754/

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