It can happen to any of us. Sometimes the stresses of work and life build up to a point where we hit burnout, and it can feel like we’ll be stuck there forever.
We’ve asked a couple of experts to share their thoughts on how to identify burnout, how to prevent it and how to work through it if we’re already smack dab in the middle of it.
“Without a doubt, recognizing burnout is difficult,” says Stanley J. Ward, PhD, a Texas-based leadership coach and educator. “You have a sense that something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do about it.”
To recognize what’s going on, you’ll need to do some honest self-reflection, he says. And if you’re struggling to figure it out, check in with someone you trust for feedback.
“Distinguishing between burnout and depression can be tricky,” Ward adds, “so that is another reason that you want to check in with someone who knows you. There are a variety of depression screening tools online that you can find as well.”
How to identify burnout
“To identify burnout, I use the three factors referenced in the Maslach Burnout Inventory,” Ward says. “To check in, ask yourself these three questions: Am I emotionally exhausted? Am I disconnected from people? Do I feel effective at work or home?”
If you answered yes to the first two questions and no to the third, Ward says you are heading toward burnout, if you’re not already there.
Michael Levitt, a Toronto-based author, the CEO of Breakfast Leadership and host of the podcast of the same name, says he had his own burnout in 2009.
“In 369 days, I had a heart attack that should have killed me, lost my job, had my car repossessed and, finally, my home foreclosed. It definitely was a year of worst-case scenarios,” he says. “My burnout created all of those situations, and now I’ve reinvented my life and can avoid burnout.”
Levitt says keeping an eye out for these four things can also help you identify whether you are approaching burnout.
- Irritability. “If you find you have a short temper (or it’s shorter than normal) you might be in a state of burnout,” he says.
- Inability to sleep well.
- Increased mistakes at work.
- Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy. “This includes hobbies, hanging out with friends, sex, etc.”
How to prevent burnout before it starts
Ward shares three tips to prevent burnout:
- “Know what animates you, gives you joy and meaning. Make sure those things are part of your life. The more, the better.”
- “Stay connected with people.”
“While ‘Netflix and chill’ can be a good way to spend some of your downtime, inactivity is not a prevention for burnout. So, make sure your time off includes some activities that you genuinely enjoy and that help you see some form of accomplishment. Hobbies can help with this.”
How to deal with burnout if you’re already there
“To beat burnout, we’ve got to push the needle back the other way from emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of personal effectiveness,” says Ward, “so we need to focus on things that give us joy/meaning, staying connected with our communities/families/friends and taking intentional actions where we can see some accomplishment (even if it is as simple as making the bed every day).”
Although he notes he is biased because of the work he does, Ward strongly suggests connecting with a coach who specializes in burnout-related issues – someone who is accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF).
A coach can help you get clarity to see what’s going on and take action, Ward says. “They will also hold you accountable for taking action, which is really helpful when you are emotionally exhausted.”
And, he adds, an ICF coach is ethically obliged to recommend therapy if that is what is required, so a well-trained coach can help screen you for depression.
Levitt recommends a brief but eye-opening activity to help fight your burnout.
“On a sheet of paper, create two columns. On the left column, list all of the things that bring you great joy,” he says. “[It] could be eating at your favourite restaurant or visiting a particular coffee shop.” List everything that you truly enjoy and that energizes you.
“In the right column, write down the last date you did each of these things.”
It may surprise you how long it’s been.
“Next, grab your calendar and schedule some of those favourite things over the next two weeks,” says Levitt. “DO NOT CANCEL these appointments. Treat them like they’re a crucial meeting with your boss. Would you cancel a big meeting with your boss? Then why are you cancelling things in your life that serve you?”
Ward adds that it is helpful to understand burnout as “a spectrum of indicators.”
“Maslach also makes the point that burnout is not either ‘on’ or ‘off.’ It’s a continuum,” Ward says. “Given the demands of life, all of us are somewhere on that spectrum. It’s just a question of how severe the case is. When it interferes with living a life that is meaningful, connected and feeling accomplished, it is time to take action.”