Burnout is like a magician. It can force you to pull an endless stream of perseverance and energy from up your sleeve, which you never thought was there. It can cut you in half and still require you to keep a smile plastered on your face. And it can also play tricks on your mind, creating self-doubt where there was none and minimizing just how impactful its effects can be.
To feel job burnout is not an uncommon experience, especially for those in helping professions. Physicians are notably affected by job burnout, at even higher rates than the general public, yet anyone can feel the burn. Beyond the physical toll this condition can take—fatigue, insomnia, heart disease, and decreased immunity to name a few—the mental effects can be equally grueling. Apathy or cynicism about the job, irritability toward clients or co-workers, and isolation from loved ones are just some of the disturbing difficulties that can arise along the way. And it’s within these states of mind where negative self-talk can fester. The mind has a funny way of convincing us of beliefs that may, in actuality, be as real as Bigfoot. We tend to seek out information which confirms our perspective and discount experiences which contradict it. If burnout is wreaking havoc on our mind and body, these kinds of perspectives might be dangerously untrue and lead us toward a path of self-destruction. Luckily, like a magician, burnout can also disappear. It just takes the right interventions and support. These are just a few of the myths about burnout that you might find lurking in your mind. Be on the lookout so you can keep them in check.
When we feel exhausted and unenthused about our duties, it’s not uncommon to come to the conclusion that we must suck at what we do. Why else would we turn down new challenges or feel put off dealing with people’s emotional needs when it is a part of our job description? This argument may hold water on day one at your place of employment, but it loses credibility as the reality of the job and its demands wear on you over time. The opposite of this belief may, in fact, be truer than the notion that you are a crummy worker. If someone gives physical and emotional effort to their profession day in and day out, it is a mark of a devoted and caring employee. Problems arise when we begin to expect more from ourselves than we can realistically give.
So, you have been feeling a little bit tired, a tad stressed, and just a touch under the weather lately—surely job burnout can’t have long-term physical effects, right? Wrong. Symptoms such as exhaustion, insomnia, and elevated stress hormones can all lead to serious medical conditions, especially when paired with unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking and drug or alcohol abuse. We might try to placate our own worrisome reactions to these red flags, but this form of minimizing is just another way of expecting more from ourselves than we can readily give. Our bodies are not unbreakable and will often give us messages that they need help; it’s our job to listen.
The old “if I ignore it, it will eventually go away” argument just does not fly when it comes to a persistent stressor. We are fooling ourselves if we believe our circumstances will magically improve without recognition of the problem and a plan of action to address it. The irony is that it takes effort, focus, and a dash of self-confidence to tackle a problem like burnout—all of which are resources so often depleted by the very condition you are working to improve. If you do find yourself suddenly unaffected by the harmful factors of your day-to-day, perform some serious self-reflection. Our minds and bodies find ways of adapting to various threats, not all of which are healthy. A sudden surge of apathy or numbness might mean you are dealing, but not necessarily recovering.
Much like burnout itself, seeking help does not mean you are bad at your job. The most proficient of professionals still rely on the support of others, either in their field or at home. Luckily, helping professions have supervision and consultation built right into their structure, yet this does not mean that everyone utilizes them the way they should. Scheduling time to consult when you feel the pressure of the job grow is one of the best things you can do for yourself and those you serve. If you are an independent contractor or otherwise and do not have adequate supervision available, seek out support in other ways. Find an understanding group of people who do the same job and/or start seeing a therapist. Schedule a weekly check-in with a good friend to hear each other out and keep each other accountable with self-care practices. Beware: taking on burnout solo is flirting with disaster.
While quitting certainly is an option, it is not the only escape route available to you from this dark and dreary place. By recognizing that quitting might be helpful, however, you are acknowledging that fundamental change needs to occur—which is a good thing! This could come in the form of taking time off, revamping your routine outside of work, letting go of extra duties, or pursuing a different work schedule or position. Listen to your body’s need for change and find a way to provide it.
Oh, buddy. Just because you have deeply injured the beast does not mean it cannot come back, with a vengeance, in the future. This does not mean the fight isn’t worth fighting. Rather, navigating your way through burnout can remind you of how much more prepared and informed you will be the next time. And, the next time it does start bubbling up, it just might be less intense, thanks to your previous hard work. By challenging this type of self-talk, you can remain a balanced, confident, and realistic professional, ready to take on challenges without bottoming out. Burnout is enough of a heavyweight opponent; don’t let your mind team up with the enemy by buying into these self-sabotage myths.
The old “if I ignore it, it will eventually go away” argument just does not fly when it comes to a persistent stressor.