“Each of us knows what it’s like to take on more than we can handle. Even with the best intentions, continuously undertaking too much inevitably leads to burning out.” – Tamara Levitt
Stress. We all experience it. It is an unavoidable part of life that isn’t always negative. In fact, stress is essential to achieve growth in any arena, be it physical, intellectual, emotional, or professional. And the list doesn’t end there.
But when stress is allowed to accrue unfettered to unhealthy levels, it can lead to burnout, especially if you don’t have the necessary mechanisms of defense in place to mitigate its unhealthy effects.
Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be ameliorated.
While the most common cause of burnout is work-related stress, it can also stem from the exigencies of parenting or caregiving. Toxic relationships are also frequent sources of exhaustion and overwhelm.
Burnout is more than just being overworked and overtired. With true burnout, exhaustion is often accompanied by feelings of apathy, cynicism, and/or defeatism. The impression that what you are doing is of little or no benefit, a perceived lack of support, and mounting demands can each add to feelings of hopelessness. Physical symptoms may present as increased headaches and other pain, digestive issues, or addictive or reckless behaviours. Someone experiencing burnout is also more likely to lash out at others.
For the sake of this article, I am choosing to focus on work-related burnout, particularly its prevalence in healthcare practitioners, since research has shown these professions tend to be among those with the highest rates of burnout. And the past year has made this an even more pressing issue than it was previously. But rest assured, if you believe you might be experiencing burnout for any reason whatsoever, this post will provide you with some tips and resources for dealing with it effectively and preventing it from recurring.
When I was in my early 20s, I had what I believed was my dream job. I was a newly minted athletic therapist and I had been awarded a position on the sports medicine team at the university in my hometown with our locally revered varsity football team. I had lots of friends, a healthy social life, and no real financial concerns. I worked incredibly long hours, but I didn’t mind, because I genuinely loved my job – so much so, that I would have rather been there than at home.
While I was working, the opportunity arose to concurrently undertake a second degree in a related field of study at the same university under the guidance of professors I had come to know well and truly admire. I was passionate about the subject matter and it was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse. At the same time, I was asked to take on a second part-time job at the school which sounded like – and turned out to be – so much fun. I was working as part of the support staff for the athletic facilities, which basically meant I got paid to chat with the athletes and watch whichever games I wasn’t already covering as a sports therapist. At 21, it couldn’t get much better than that.
It also meant I was at the university from 8am until 12:30am Monday to Friday, covering football games all day Saturday, and on the road with the hockey team Sundays. I even worked over the Christmas holidays at the sports complex because I was one of the few staff members who lived locally full-time.
Even though I loved mostly every second of what I was doing, even at 21, I quickly realized the schedule I was keeping was not going to be maintainable long term. I was having difficulty focusing in class – something I had never experienced previously. I was becoming irritable with my superiors, which was not part of my usual character. And most importantly, I was rapidly falling out of love with my brand spanking new profession.
Something had to give.
So, I evaluated my priorities, and concluded that the sports facilities support gig had to go. It was fun, but came with long hours and low pay – Neither of which I needed. So, I went to my boss, explained my predicament, and politely requested to be let go. To my surprise, my appeal was met with a resounding NO. I was told I was indispensable to the team and that I would leave a void that was too hard to fill. At the ripe old age of 21, I internalized that as guilt, and accepted his decision. 43-year-old me recognizes that response for the crock of shite that it was.
Literally anyone could have done that job. My boss simply didn’t want to have to find someone to replace me.
Thus, I kept up my existing schedule since I had deemed the other aspects essential to my quality of life. That is until I ended up crying hysterically on the floor in a back storage room of the sports complex out of sheer exhaustion. My boss took me seriously then.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. That experience was a key factor in my ultimate decision to move on from a career in athletic therapy after only 5 short years.
But there was a silver lining. I became familiar the signs of burnout at a young age and have been mindful of them ever since.
Right up until this past year.
Sure, I saw all the warnings like flashing neon signs and recognized their implications, but I chose to ignore them anyway.
Months before the pandemic hit, I would get home from work, plunk myself on the couch, bury my face in my hands and scream “I HATE MY JOB!” And then I would immediately look up to the skies and apologize to the Universe, stating I didn’t really mean it.
But I did. And if I’m honest, I still do. Yet ironically, I tell everyone I meet how lucky I am that I LOVE my job.
Let me clarify something important: I hate my JOB, not my profession. And an even more crucial point to elucidate: I actually do LOVE my colleague, my patients, and all the professional training I have received. Those elements are what will allow me to find daylight on the other side of my current burnout.
In the meantime, back to my painfully obvious list of warning signs.
1. Daily outbursts of “I HATE MY JOB” in the privacy of my own home.
2. Rising frustration over the abusive conduct of a handful of patients who clearly exhibited entitled behaviours I had not previously encountered outside of the private sector (I had never been paid a fee for service before – this apparently put me squarely into the category of customer service in which the client believes they are always right, and I was totally unprepared for that).
3. Self-induced pressure to live up to the expectations of patients who were accustomed to the consummate quality of service provided by my colleague and owner of the clinic where I work.
4. Similar self-induced pressure to deliver perfect treatments, always return everything to its specific location, and generally not rock the boat in any way, since I considered the opportunity to work with my friend and mentor one of unparalleled precedence.
Then the pandemic hit.
In addition to the above items, I constantly worried about cross-contamination, making someone sick, or omitting an important step in our COVID-19 protocols, despite taking every precaution humanly possible.
There is ever-increasing intolerance among current and prospective patients alike over wait-times and Covid restrictions.
There is rampant discontent and outright hate being propagated all over the place about the pandemic, the vaccine, and the existing state of the country and world, and I continue to be rocked to the core at the amount of it that lands squarely on the shoulders of healthcare workers.
Oh yes… Concurrently, I am also trying exit the physiotherapy profession in just under 9 remaining weeks with my reputation and dignity intact, while simultaneously attempting to keep my own business afloat so I don’t go belly up when I do leave, as well as coordinating a major move to another city and struggling to finish a book that is of major importance to my economic survival in my post-physiotherapy world.
And I have been trying to juggle all this on my own for weeks because my poor colleague is currently trying to recuperate from surgery.
I know I do not communicate well when I am concerned about upsetting someone, and as such, my first few attempts to let my colleague know I was not doing so well failed miserably.
Only after I stopped sleeping altogether, lost my appetite and a bunch of weight, made a few (thankfully unharmful) mistakes at work I normally would never make, and my family staged an intervention to get me to make a doctor’s appointment, did the full impact of what I was doing to myself hit me squarely in the face.
And then I just felt stupid.
As many of you know, outside of my physiotherapy practice, I own a @#$%ing self-care business. Now THAT, I really DO love. And, what’s more: I’m REALLY good at it. I don’t often pat myself on the back, but I can acknowledge that this is my wheelhouse and I have helped a lot of people.
Healthcare professionals notoriously make the worst patients. We are firm proponents of the Do as I say, not as I do mentality. And I am clearly no exception, despite having more self-care tools and resources than most of my colleagues, thanks to my specific background and training.
But here’s the good news: There are many ways to prevent, mitigate, and recover effectively from burnout, no matter what caused it.
1. Get Professional Help.
Do NOT try to go it alone. This was my biggest mistake. While I regularly work with a therapist, I was totally resistant to the one thing I obviously needed most: medication – namely, sleeping pills. My lack of sleep was the most detrimental aspect of my burnout and made seeing otherwise obvious solutions exponentially more difficult. And the pills are only temporary until I get myself back on track.
See your doctor. See a therapist. Get a life and wellness coach. Find professionals you trust who can help you break the cycle before it breaks you.
2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation.
The more you create a mindfulness practice, the more you will be able to focus on things directly under your control and concentrating on one thing at a time helps to lighten any load exponentially.
See my article on Meditation 101 for helpful tips on developing a personal meditation practice.
Pigéage and Dhyana: Ritualistic Grape Stomping and Mediation 101 – Jami Crook, Health and Wellness Consultant
Journaling has proven to be very therapeutic in and of itself, but it can also help you organize your thoughts as well as allowing you to examine what is working in your life and what isn’t. Journaling is a safe space where you don’t have to worry about sharing your most intimate thoughts with anyone other than yourself, and has the added benefit of letting you come back and read what you wrote to help with goal setting, our next step.
4. Evaluate Your Professional and Personal Goals
Human beings are constantly evolving and naturally, so are our goals. What was important to us at the outset of our career (or relationship), may have changed significantly over time. And that’s perfectly OK. What isn’t OK is letting those internal changes outpace external ones. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change careers entirely (or leave your current partner), but it might strongly suggest making some subtler adjustments to your life to allow more congruence between your energy output and your core values.
5. Effective Communication
This is another area I need to work on personally, as illustrated in the above example. Do not wait until you can no longer function, or you will be unable to open a useful dialogue with the appropriate individuals. If you come at someone in an accusatory fashion, you will only succeed in putting them on the defensive, and that will not lead to a helpful outcome. Ask to speak to them in private at a time that works for you both. Then, and this may be uncomfortable but is extremely important, make sure they understand the gravity of the situation and that your health is being negatively affected.
I now recognize my failure to appreciate the severity of the situation that had been building for many months. I have forgiven myself for being adept at helping others identify potential precursors to burnout in their world and disregarding the explicit warning signs so abundantly present in my own. But I have now taken the appropriate steps and am successfully emerging on the other side, admittedly with some lingering exhaustion and occasional bouts of persistent anger, but even they are getting fewer and farther between.
I have procured the medication that will at least allow me to get some direly needed sleep and have had an effective conversation with my colleague about the situation in which she expressed her foremost concern as the need for me to take care of myself.
I have developed a list of priorities of what needs to get done and am now concentrating on one thing at a time – a long-ingrained personal skill I have been seriously neglecting. I have realized that my pre-existing personal expectations were impossible to maintain and have eradicated them completely in favour of an attitude of what will get done will get done whenever it gets done.
I am excited for what the future hold for me both personally and professionally. But I now understand that same excitement contributed to my current state of burnout, and I have let go my self-imposed deadlines. Saying NO is still my biggest weakness, but awareness is 9 tenths of the battle. And day by day, the Universe is sending me additional signs letting me know it really is OK to say those two little letters.
For now, priority number one is to get some serious shuteye – after a glass of my favourite sauvignon blanc, now that Dry January is a thing of the past, and a yoga sequence consisting of 90% Savasana (Corpse Pose).
As for the rest, well, it will get done when it gets done – if I choose to get it done at all.
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