Burnout is quickly becoming one of the most common conditions I’m seeing in my office on a daily basis. From executives to new mums, athletes, students, entrepreneurs and young professionals, burnout is plaguing our society. Which begs the question, what exactly is burnout? Burnout is due to a combination of being too busy, having too many things to do in 24 hours, not getting enough sleep, sleeping poorly, eating on the run, not eating at all, burning the candle at both ends, not taking enough time for yourself and not having the time to live a balanced life.
Burnout does not occur overnight. The human body is resilient and it is capable of accomplishing almost superhuman feats. (check out YouTube channel “humans are awesome”) We all know those people in our lives who seem to be able to be able to keep going and going and never appear to burnout. Well, take solace in the fact that we all have our breaking points and there is an extremely wide range depending on each person’s individual ability to cope and balance their life. At the beginning, stress often enhances our abilities. It helps us to think faster on our feet, increases our energy and our focus. However, when the stress never ends and we move from one deadline to another deadline, one sales quarter to another or one semester to another eventually your body says that enough is enough. It attempted to cope with the stress and fueled you to survive the stressful situation by increasing adrenaline, cortisol, blood pressure and your heart rate. But your body knows that it can’t-do this forever and after a period of time it needs to eventually protect itself and it does this by down-regulating the initial hormone increases and instead of stress fueling you and increasing your productivity you now feel as though you cannot handle the smallest stressor which a few years ago you would have laughed at.
There are varying degrees of burnout; however, it goes something like this. Samantha is a 32-year-old corporate lawyer. She has been quickly developing a name for herself in her large law firm and has developed a reputation for someone who doesn’t give up and is willing to go the extra mile for her clients. She prides herself on her ability to accomplish her professional goals as well as her own personal goals. She wakes up early to hit the gym before heading into the office to do research before meeting with her clients. She often eats on the run between meetings and reading court documents. She stays late at the office almost every evening. On the weekends she catches up with friends, heading out for drinks and dancing. She has been doing this for the past 6 years and up until a few months ago was on top of the world.
Recently she has noticed that getting up in the morning to get to the gym is becoming extremely difficult and feels that when the alarm goes off she needs more sleep. She has started relying on coffee a lot more to provide some energy. She no longer wakes up and actually feels “awake”. Instead, she is finding that it can take one to two hours to truly feel awake. Her motivation has been decreasing and this is starting to take a toll on her professional work. On the weekends when her friends call her to meet up for drinks she often cancels and instead will crash on the sofa in front of the TV watching her favorite shows and binge-watching movies. Her short-term memory has started to dramatically decrease and now needs to write a list of 3-4 items at the grocery store. Even with pushing herself at the gym the weight continues to pack on, specifically around the stomach. She has never had a muffin top before. Worst of all she finds she has no patience for her partner and very quickly explodes over the smallest and generally trivial details.
Samantha is what we would call, for all sakes and purposes “burnt out!” Her busy lifestyle and lack of balance have caused her hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal axis (HPA axis) to move from a hyperactive state to a hypo state. This means that she no longer feels she can handle everything and feels as though she cannot handle any amount of stress anymore. This leads down the road to anxiety and if not caught can often lead to depression. It is often at this point that Samantha would start to see her doctor and the prescriptions for anxiety, depression and sleeping medications begin.
Today we often define ourselves as to how much we do and how busy we are. We live in an over-connected universe yet our generation is one of the most disconnected when it comes to face to face human interaction that does not take place via a piece of technology. As awesome as technology is, and you know I love tech and drones, technology continues to separate us from true person to person communication. By being so connected it enables us to continue to work long after the bell rings. We no longer give our brains a break or some downtime. How many people actually make a point to take their cellphone to the bathroom when they need to go? In 2014 Time magazine published an article that found 1 in 6 cellphones had fecal matter on them! (http://techland.time.com/2014/01/14/theres-probably-poop-on-your-cellphone/) If this isn’t a wakeup call to maybe think about our obsession with our devices than considering that our devices are contributing to you being and feeling burnt out.
Burnout is a condition which can easily be treated but requires creating a shift in your own health. It means prioritizing yourself first and not your job, it means attempting to live a somewhat balanced lifestyle, taking time for yourself, taking time to unplug. Once this shift has started to occur and you make your health a priority, great things can happen!