Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion and is a reaction to prolonged stress. The risk of burnout increases after months or even years of continuous stress and not being able to recover from the stress. Burnout often is related to work stress, but this is not always the cause. Burnout can be triggered by other ongoing stressors, such as relationship issues, caring for a sick family member, and financial stress. By recognizing the causes and symptoms, along with the tips provided in this article, you will have the tools to prevent burnout.
The Road from Short-Term Stress to Burnout
Short-term stress and (temporarily) working under pressure can be productive and helpful on the work floor. It helps one to be alert, come up with creative solutions, and can make it easier to make decisions and move on to the next task on the to-do list. That is what stress has traditionally been advantageous because the body can quickly release the energy needed to perform.
Unfortunately for many of us, stress is often not limited to short-term peaks but instead unfolds into chronic stress. Though every person has a different threshold of how much stress they can handle, eventually everyone reaches the point where the body can no longer recover and produce energy to cope with the stress. As a result, we slow down, make mistakes, and become irritable. Some might experience headaches or intestinal complaints yet others suffer physical complaints such as back problems. At the beginning stages of burnout, almost everyone experiences excessive worrying and sleeping problems. This is the start of the cycle of burnout.
At the onset of burnout, the following symptoms (and others) can occur:
- Concentration problems and/or forgetfulness
- Suddenly feeling angry, sad, or insecure
- Difficulty shutting out noises
- Unrest/feeling rushed
- Sleep problems
- Physical complaints include headaches, dizziness, stomach pain, and muscle aches
Everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people are more prone to becoming burned out. People at higher risk of burnout often show the following behaviors:
- Difficulty saying no
- Negativity about their own performance
- Set high expectations for themselves
- Feeling responsible
- Trouble asking for help
- Highly motivated and engaged
- Difficulty expressing feelings.
Situational and contextual factors also have an essential impact. For example, having unclear tasks or a lot of pressure to perform at work can contribute to burnout. Conflicts, a negative work or living environment, or the lack of appreciation influence stress levels and how one can cope with them.
Burnout can be prevented. Taking good care of yourself is an essential part of being successful. Your physical, emotional, and mental health form the core of your work and prevent you from making mistakes. If you want to avoid burnout and be successful, it is important to prioritize yourself. Keeping the balance prevents burnout and ensures you can continue working with pleasure, satisfaction, and a high level of effectiveness.
- Schedule recovery time
Without taking the time to recover, the risk of burnout increases. Your body is resilient; however, it cannot recover under continuous stress. Therefore, stress must be alternated with moments of recovery. To prevent burnout, you need to prioritize recovery with the following steps:
- Get enough sleep. For most adults, this is 7-9 hours every night. At least increase the
- amount of sleep above the number of hours needed to function.
- Plan moments of rest – a moment to let go of all the demands of school, work, or others for a while. A relaxing activity can help you unwind. Relax, go outside, meditate, watch a movie, listen to music, or play an instrument. Discover what your body needs and prevent the tension in your body from increasing.
- Schedule a few consecutive days off, such as a weekend without work. Make sure you are not available for stress-increasing tasks during that time.
- Change your environment now and then. For example, take a weekend break or get out in nature for a day.
- After a busy period, consciously plan a recovery period. Try to lower your workload and take more rest until you feel recharged.
- Plan your week – every week
The more responsibilities you have, the more critical a weekly schedule becomes. A weekly schedule helps establish priorities, creates balance, and provides perspective. This brings a sense of control and increases confidence. A weekly schedule allows you to stop overthinking and helps you prioritize. You can work according to your plan and trust that you will have done everything that is necessary at this time.
A good balance between the body and mind starts with varied and complete nutrition. Enrich your daily meal plan with energy boosters. For example, adding foods rich in vitamins B and C is a good start. Add more eggs, oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, cinnamon, and beans to the grocery list.
Unhealthy habits can cause highs and lows in energy throughout the day, affecting your mood, sleep, and effectiveness. For example, foods that contain sugar are known to cause energy dips, and alcohol affects sleep. When needing more energy, eliminate sugar and alcohol as much as possible and drink more water throughout the day.
Exercise plays a crucial part in preventing burnout. Exercise improves your physical condition, provides energy, and therefore helps prevent and recover from burnout. In addition, by exercising more, the quality of sleep also increases.
Chronic stress and burnout affect your brain; they impair short-term memory and reduce your ability to concentrate. Moderately intensive exercise helps restore and increase the activity of the hippocampus, improving memory function and concentration. It also allows the hippocampus to continue to exert its inhibitory effect on the hypothalamus, which can even increase, causing the production of cortisol to decrease and reduce overall stress. Additionally, exercise provides distraction in the moment and has calming benefits due to the body release of endorphins, a chemical that improves your mood.
With exercise, all sports are suitable. Examples could be swimming, hiking, running, or biking. However, it is not necessary to become an athlete. Minor changes to make exercise a part of your daily habits can be beneficial. Think of getting up and walking around when talking on the phone, taking the stairs or the bike more often, or inviting a friend for an activity that prevents you from sitting still. Moreover, exercising with family, neighbors, or friends at a scheduled time prevents people from canceling and sticking with their new habits. Finally, make sure that the changes in your lifestyle are sustainable and build routines that help you follow through for the long term.
- Make Choices and Set Boundaries
Usually, the helpful person who aims for quality is at higher risk for burnout. If you often have trouble setting boundaries and do not easily say no, the balance between giving and receiving energy appears disrupted. The lack of energy and emotional exhaustion eventually can turn into burnout. Some activities extract a lot of energy, whereas other activities provide energy. Choosing the activities into which you are willing to divide your energy is crucial to finding a balance.
Additionally, it is good to set boundaries and communicate those to others. Listen carefully to your body which often sends signals when stress is approaching too much. Say no more often when that limit is in sight. Remind yourself (and others around you) that you can only do one thing at a time.
- Seek Out Connections
Bottling up emotions can exacerbate the stressful situation you are experiencing, therefore your social support network and the sharing your story are essential. Talking about your situation often helps you to become more aware of what is happening and what you can do about it. Talking to someone about your stress is often also a great relief. Decide for yourself how much you tell and to whom. With whom do you feel comfortable sharing your personal story and with whom do you share less of your story?
- Try Something New
Though it can cost some additional energy, new experiences can provide a different perspective. Stepping out of the comfort zone can give new energy and help you see the more minor, enjoyable things in life. This way, you can maintain enthusiasm in your personal and professional life.
You can recover from burnout in small steps. No matter how defeated you feel – you too, can restart the upward spiral. If the feelings of burnout do not go away, mental health support may be necessary. You can also contact a professional counselor directly. Read more about the phases of burnout here.
Emerald Mental Health specializes in helping pilots and flight attendants via counseling and mental health coaching. Reach out if you need help with this or any other issue.
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/
Kim, D., & Leem, Y. (2016). Chronic stress-induced memory deficits are reversed by regular exercise via AMPK-mediated BDNF induction. Neuroscience. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26975895/