It has been a year since the world turned up side down. Whereas the lockdowns are easing, people are getting vaccinated, and life is beginning to look more like “normal,” we are faced with a hard truth: people are burned out and mental health problems continue to increase.
One positive result of the pandemic is that burnout and mental health in the workplace are finally getting the attention they deserve. But before we talk about burnout, anxiety, depression and self-care, I think it is important to define these terms. Words like “burnout,” “depression,” and “anxiety” have become so commonplace in our everyday vernacular, the words themselves have lost much of their potency. “Burnout” becomes a state of exhaustion that a weeklong vacation in Cancun will fix. “Depressed” is simply a state of feeling sad, and “anxiety” is solely equated with worry. Because of the minimalization of these words, they have ceased to be of major concern to many individuals. So, when someone is struggling with the clinical mental health concerns of burnout, depression, and anxiety, they are often difficult to recognize not only in yourself but also in those around you.
Defining the terms.
Burnout: An extended state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress.
Anxiety: Excessive worry about multiple topics paired with physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, restlessness, increased heart rate, irritability, muscle pain, and headaches nearly every day for at least six months.
Major Depressive Disorder: A mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and/or emptiness. Other symptoms include sleep disturbances, weight gain/loss, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, anger/irritability, loss of interest in activities, and unexplained physical ailments.
Self-care: Any activity which focuses on increasing one’s health.
Burnout in the workplace is attributed to the workplace, not the individual.
Okay, that one might sting a little bit. But more and more research is leaning toward a possible causal relationship between burnout and workplace culture. Author and lawyer Paula Davis notes that employees with a lack of autonomy, too few resources, too many work demands, lack of support, lack of recognition, and too much workplace bureaucracy are at high risk of burnout. These risk factors, Davis explains, are not just the problem of the individual employee; instead, they are systemic problems within the organization.
But workplace burnout is not solely workplace related. The truth is people bring their personal lives to work too. Financial difficulties, interpersonal issues, relationship concerns, health problems, and other life stressors add to an employee’s emotional, physical, and mental drain. So mental health concerns like major depression and anxiety can further increase the risk of burnout.
How do you recognize burnout in yourself and others?
There are five stages to burnout.
- The honeymoon stage. This stage is the introduction to stress. Maybe you’ve received a promotion or a new project. You’re excited during this stage, ready to prove yourself, so the underlying stress is justifiable and expected.
- Onset of stress stage. In this stage, the stress is beginning to get bothersome. You notice some days are hard to get through, and you may be more irritable than usual. Other symptoms could include fatigue, forgetfulness, change in appetite, change in sleep patterns, headaches, increased blood pressure, anxiety, and heart palpitations.
- Chronic stress stage. This is a more intense version of stage two, where your bad days outnumber your good days. Symptoms from stage two become more prominent. Additional symptoms in this stage could include apathy, denial of problems, increased drug/alcohol/caffeine use, physical illness, and social withdrawal.
- Burnout stage. This is the stage of behavior change, where mental disorders such as major depressive disorder and/or general anxiety disorder take hold. It is crucial to get help during this stage as symptoms continue to increase. Symptoms in this stage could include social isolation, feelings of hopelessness and despair, chronic physical health problems, neglect of personal needs, desire to escape, and obsessive thoughts.
- Chronic burnout. The final stage is marked by chronic physical, mental, and emotional health problems.
Combatting burnout is essential.
As we stated earlier, the aspects of burnout which can be attributed to the workplace may be out of an individual employee’s control. However, building social relationships and working as part of a trusting team could be good coping mechanisms to build resiliency.
From an individual standpoint, it is crucial to have a self-care plan. I recommend making a plan which includes all areas of your life—physical health, emotional health, social health, and spiritual health. The big three of physical health, of course, are sleep, diet, and exercise. Ensuring a full night’s sleep, a healthy diet, and at least 90 minutes of exercise a week can make a significant difference in all four areas of health.
Making a habit to practice self-care can decrease your risk of burnout.
Thanks for reading,
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