Checked Your Burnout level lately?

Hamster running on a wheel  “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Lily Tomlin

Yesterday was GroundHog day and according to the most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, we are in for extended winter weather.  That’s a pity because for many of us, Spring cannot come too soon.

Many people experience a letdown during the first few months of a new year. The busy holiday seasons are over and life settles back into shorter daylight hours, longer stretches of work and more challenging weather for many of us.  This year, in particular,  the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis makes these feelings seem particularly acute. For some, the negative feelings and lack of motivation can be more serious; SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a recognized medical condition made up of a “combination of biologic and mood disturbances with a seasonal pattern.”(Kurlansik, p 1)  As well as a general feeling of melancholy, Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School describes several common symptoms of individuals suffering from SAD:  “They slow down and have a hard time waking up in the morning. Their energy level decreases, they tend to eat more, especially sweets and starches, and they gain weight. Their concentration suffers, and they withdraw from friends and family.” If this sounds familiar, 30 to 90 minutes sitting under a bright florescent light could help.  See this WebMD article for more information on treatments for SAD.

A lack of concentration and decreased energy and interest can also be an indication of another problem.  A problem that seems to afflict some of the most highly-committed,  hard working and successful people is burnout.  I have experienced a serious bout of burnout in the past myself.  Eventually it resulted in a career change for me, but the outcome does not have to come to that if symptoms are recognized and corrective behaviors are put in place early enough.

Isn’t burnout just an excuse that employees use when they become overtired on the job?  Actually, exhaustion is a different problem than burnout.  While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, burnout is more pervasive. As well as the physical symptoms such as exhaustion, sleep problems and increased susceptibility to illness, individuals with burnout display a number of behavioral and emotional symptoms.  A core part of burnout which separates it from plain exhaustion is a deep sense of disillusionment.  In fact, the American Psychological Association warns that burnout is not just the office joke, but can actually have serious physical side effects including cardiovascular disease,  “an increased likelihood of type II diabetes, male infertility, sleep disorders and musculoskeletal disorders among those with the extreme physical, mental and emotional fatigue.”

One of the challenges with burnout is that an individual might not recognize the early stages of burnout. Hans Selye was one of the founding fathers of stress research and he spent significant time studying burnout.  He discovered something surprising when he studied the long-term effects of stress on animals. He concluded that “they survived very well for quite a long period of time until, then all of a sudden, their resistance collapsed without any obvious direct cause. ” (  Are you experiencing burnout?  Take this online test to evaluate your condition.

Becoming more efficient and organized can help relieve some stress in our lives. Experts encourage us to pinpoint areas of stress in our daily lives and to use tools at our disposal to help address our work overloads.  One technique that I have used when experiencing early stages of burnout is to find something new to learn that intrigues me.  This change of focus sometimes helps me to regain my enthusiasm.  Another technique can be to plan a summer vacation getaway (even if it is camping in your backyard!). Just having something special to look forward to can help change our focus from the mundane to more pleasant thoughts; saving for a vacation or a long desired home renovation out of our paychecks can help remind us of one way that our job adds meaning and enjoyment to our lives.  Making a list of the various ways that our jobs give us meaning as well as those things or people who make our lives richer can help rekindle the passion in our lives.  For more ideas for recovering from pandemic burnout, see Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s article for Inside Higher Ed article, and stay tuned to future posts in our blog to find more ways and tools to help improve your daily work stresses.


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