How to spot burnout | Fin24

How to spot burnout

Aug 08 2018 12:24
Amanda Visser

There are several tell-tale signs of an approaching burnout, which is defined as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, personal detachment and reduced personal accomplishment.

However, very few people recognise the symptoms, or act on them when they do recognise them. Burnout has a devastating effect because when left unchecked it can destroy careers, health and relationships.

Burnout differs from stress. 

Stress may kill you prematurely, but burnout may make life seem not worth living. 

That is when the danger zone turns into the burnout zone (see table at the end of the article). 

Wendy Ward, coach, speaker and writer at Presilience, says she was in a cycle of burnout for about seven years. Several factors – such as financial stress, single parenthood, being in a new country, high levels of independence and a belief that she could not ask for support exacerbated the situation.

Many people in modern society experience some form of burnout – it is a modern-day malady in response to a “deep-seated sense of disconnect and a loss of meaning”, says Ward. 

Early signs 

The small sparks that eventually ignite the fire causing complete burnout is feeling exhausted; having impaired concentration and being forgetful; feeling depressed, anxious and trapped. 

There is a feeling of constantly being overwhelmed. 

People also experience loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss, or binge eating and weight gain. 

Sleeping patterns are disrupted and people burning out tend to be irritable and seem to be picking fights with everyone. 

Ward says when a manager suspects early signs of burnout in a staff member, the manager could ask the employee a few questions to determine whether this is indeed the case. 

These could include how many hours of sleep they are getting per night, and also to describe the quality of their sleep. 

Other questions could include whether the employee believes they have any time to themselves, and whether they did any exercise that day, or have plans to exercise. 

Monique de Villiers, life and business coach at Inner Space, has burnt out three times before breaking the cycle. 

Without the necessary tools and skills, it is easy to fall back into the same habits that caused the burnout. 

“There is a stigma attached to burnout and having to tell people you cannot cope.”

In the long term the early signs become chronic and eventually debilitating, she says. People can experience chest pains that feel like a heart attack; they often feel dizzy and faint; there is a lack of productivity and a decline in performance. 

The body’s immune system is completely depleted, and the person is susceptible to illnesses such as colds and flu and even pneumonia. 

They tend to be off from work more often and for longer periods of time, she says. 

In the corporate world that is when people are being “performance managed” instead of being treated for burnout. 

The recovery

De Villiers says people who have burnt out reach a point where they cannot focus clearly, they cannot prioritise and they tend to stop caring. 

She helps them by planning their week with a lot of emphasis on eating correctly, sleeping well and refocusing only on the work that must be done. 

In severe cases, people become completely disengaged, their emotions are uncontrollable and they sometimes resort to self-mutilation. 

In such cases, De Villiers recommends seeking professional medical help to “stabilise” the person.

“You did not burn out overnight,” says De Villiers. “Recovery is not going to happen overnight.”

Ward has developed 10 key focus areas to increase people’s resilience in order to either prevent burnout when there are already early signs, or to recover from burnout and prevent it from happening again.

Inner resilience includes mental, emotional and personal resilience. People need to change the way they think and how they respond to situations. 

“Observing our thinking patterns and thinking traps is a key aspect of building resilience.”

It is critical to notice the “inner critic and the voice of judgement”, says Ward.  

Outer resilience relates to physical, relational, operational and financial resilience where you learn to manage being overwhelmed. 

Here, the individual needs to learn to manage their time and set clear boundaries – and learn to say no.

Core resilience is about believing in something bigger and higher than yourself. Become curious, comfortable, creative and develop your intuition again.

No more homework

Most people were brought up in a society where, from early childhood, we brought “work home”. 

De Villiers says there are certainly times when taking work home is unavoidable. 

However, people who start feeling overwhelmed should plan which projects they can take on. Start saying no, and start delegating better and more often. 

“Take breaks and do not jump from the one frying pan into the next one.”

She says people need to switch off – and that means all computers, smartphones, or other devices. 

Socialise outside your area of work – join, for example, the Toastmasters and challenge yourself on a different level. 

“Be mindful of how you talk to yourself. Negative self-talk can become self-sabotage. Think before you talk to yourself,” says De Villiers. 

The bottom line

Figures from Stats SA show that absenteeism costs companies between R12bn and R16bn per annum – much of that relates to workplace stress, burnout syndrome and employee health.

De Villiers believes companies internationally are far ahead of South Africa in terms of employee wellness – like having a dedicated room where people can go to scream to get rid of frustration or anger. 

Others serve snacks two or three times a week because people do not take lunch; or they have created a space where people can make a private phone call, or an area where employees can do some exercise during their lunch hour.  

“Check your system and surrounds for toxicity. Do not tolerate abuse … when we are the hamster on the wheel a part of our spirit dies,” advises Ward.

This article originally appeared in the 16 August edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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