In this article, you will learn to prevent burnout by understanding the psychology of exhaustion and what steps take us toward healthy balance.
Are you suffering from burnout?
Too many people are caught up in a burnout pandemic. Its key characteristics:
- exhaustion, fatigue
- loss of motivation and pleasure
- emotional detachment or need to withdraw.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently added burnout to a list of occupational phenomena and in some sectors, 8 out of 10 people will experience it each year. The Covid pandemic has made things worse causing more burnout.
Burnout lowers efficacy but also erodes self-esteem. It can affect anyone from millennials to seasoned professionals.
If outside validation is your main source of nourishment, you will be hungry for the rest of your life.
Steps to prevent burnout
To prevent burnout, it helps to first understand the psychology of exhaustion and what steps lead towards it.
The work of psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who examined burnout in the 1970s is particularly illuminating. Freudenberger defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Below are the first three steps he identified that can cause one to experience burnout. When I read his work, I noticed that we are all wired to get onto the burnout path. Let me explain:
1. The compulsion to prove oneself
From a very early age, our nervous system knows that survival equals connection and connection requires attention. As children, we seek attention and with it, likeability, approval and love. This does not fade away once we become adults. You may well know individuals whose actions are primarily driven by the need to be liked and approved of, which can prove problematic at work and in all kinds of interactions, including in teams. You may recognize this trend in yourself.
What this means is that all of humanity is hard-wired to be susceptible to burnout. You could be the millennial seeking fame and stardom, or your first successful startup before the age of 25, or a seasoned professional desperate to secure a key promotion, keep your job or ensure you’re seen as a team player.
The key question is: what do we do with that compulsion?
2. Working “harder”
Attention and approval demand work. They require that we show up, engage and give effort. This takes energy; if that energy is balanced by adequate rest, the journey to burnout is halted. If the energy requirement exceeds what we have to give, we will deplete.
At times and without paying attention we can deplete to dangerously low levels. This is especially sinister when the change is gradual. It is easy to get caught in working ever harder, risking drain or draining out, sowing seeds of dissatisfaction and in the end creating poor results. Without adequate rest and recovery a vicious cycle begins.
I have been watching the BeJu (Bullet Journal) phenomena with some interest as the journaling method relates to my Grid productivity and wellbeing approach. Originally designed to aid notes-organization by Caroll Ryder (who admits to having ADHD) this mindfulness-meets-organization approach has actually caused burnout in some people.
Imagine my surprise: when searching for videos on the Bullet journal on Facebook, I came across people confessing to incredible stress and burnout from bullet journaling.
Why? Because rather than using the method to aid their lives, these people got caught up in the pursuit of social media likes from their Instagram-perfect BeJu pages postings. How did this happen?
3. Pleasing others and putting our own needs last
Our minds focus on something and zero in on it a bit like a missile on a target! But, what if what we focus on turns out to be the wrong end goal?
If we follow the example above, imagine you began to learn a method to help you stay calm, organized and motivated to get the most from your day. In fact, the BeJu mission is to help people become more mindful of how they spend their lives, time and energy.
Yet if you happen to be a person who wants attention and you know you can get it from social media and quick stardom by “going viral”, the real purpose of the tool gets lost in favor of social media likes. The more you chase external approval the more miserable you feel. You may even abandon a great practice because it’s making you work way too hard for the wrong rewards.
In the video I watched, the presenter admitted that she prioritized her need to be seen and admired over actually doing what she needed to get done. A sure way to kill joy. I thought perhaps she should try the Grid and combine it with BeJu.
Other ways that risk burnout
Few other ways that risk burnout include:
- telling yourself something is only temporary such as when pulling all-nighters to study or complete projects, taking performance-enhancing substances, etc
- doing loads for others but not looking after yourself, so you become exhausted – parents, carers, mission-driven professionals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, etc
- becoming “broke” as a helper, coach, healer and solopreneur by helping others but not charging adequate rates or giving away your services for free to earn the respect you ought to have for yourself
- engaging in habitual high-burnout risk behaviors such as perfectionism, not saying No, and refusing to delegate
- taking on too much!
Don’t be afraid to say No – be afraid of saying Yes too often.Dr. Magdalena Bak-Maier, Grid creator and leadership coach
3 Burnout Prevention Tips
Now that you know the first three rungs of the burnout ladder, you may want to take an honest assessment to check whether you’re in danger. Here are my three tips to avoid the more unpleasant burnout effects that follow suit if things get worse:
- Take the road of self-love and unconditional acceptance of yourself as you are. The sooner you can drop the compulsion of needing to prove yourself to others and living your life to get other people’s approval, the better your health and wellbeing will be.
Examples of actions that will help could be: dressing in a way that makes you feel comfortable instead of wearing what you assume is expected, saying “no” to people and declining invitations for work or pleasure that you know will likely drain you, and clearing people out of your life who bring negativity, gossip and constant complaining. All of these behaviours are fundamentally self-harming.
- Give yourself adequate breaks, self-care and rest. For more ideas, read Grid self-care and 10 ideas for self-care. Until you begin to respect and cultivate your wellbeing, don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. People generally will treat you as you let them.
- Put yourself first; many people have a real problem with this rule. They are afraid of being called selfish or even labeled a narcissist. Others will openly admit that pleasing others makes them feel good. What we need is balance.
Love of self is at the heart of authenticity and genuine connection and it demands that one learns to attend to oneself, and nurture one’s mind, heart, body, spirit and soul.
Stop letting people who do little for you control so much of your life, how you feel and ultimately your health.Dr. Magdalena Bak-Maier
How to know that things are improving?
According to Herbert Freudenberger, if one finds themselves taking the three steps above, one opens the door to more negative feelings including conflict, resentment, anger, sadness, upset and more stress!
By contrast, if you’re finding yourself feeling increasingly lighter, more joyful and content – you have found a way to rebalance your life and energetic demands in a way that supports your wellbeing. If you want some help with this, check out our Grid clinics.
Feeling less good is a useful early alert system
Of course, negative feelings are incredibly useful if one pays attention. Negative emotions and states are perfect natural alarms to our nervous system. They say: “Stop what you’re doing! It’s not working!”
If you’re experiencing any of these signals pause, listen and make one small change to what you do. Our helpful 14-Day Habit Builder course can help you pinpoint that vital tweak that you need to make things better. It has and is helping many others make positive changes in their lives from greater connection, getting projects completes to being kinder.
Mind the story you tell yourself
There is another way to cope with negative cues which can be misleading and even dangerous: denial.
If you’re caught in justifying and explaining why you need to earn other people’s approval so much or why you can’t take a break, you may be habitually deprioritizing your true needs and keeping joy away. If that sounds like you, get help. Explore our Grid blogs and method to have more structure to support healthy self-care. Talk to someone. Talk to us.