By Muriel Bauer, Almagaia Counselling
Nobody expects to end up burnt out at work. Whether you’re starting your own business or finally landing your dream managerial position, it’s exciting to see your own ideas having real-life effects, especially when you’ve put your money, credibility, dreams and aspirations on the line. So to make it work, you tell yourself you’ve got to give it 100% no matter what.
Ironically, it’s in these situations of intense effort and potential self-fulfillment that problems can arise. Your job becomes like a baby that requires constant attention, and you start facing the kind of ever-rising chronic workplace stress that results in burnout.
It’s easy to misunderstand how people fall into burnout, and how they can get back out again. I like to think of it as a spectrum. On one end we’ve got Green, which is on the side of optimal self-care. When we’re in the ‘green’, we’ve got a a sense of balance in our lives – ideally, we know how to self care, we take time to rest, eat healthy food, exercise regularly and have fun. We can say no to unhealthy pressures, we accept our imperfections and hopefully can tap into a supportive network of family and friends. In short, we know how to look after our emotional and physical health.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Red symbolising burnout. Burnout is an overwhelming sense of physical and psychological exhaustion often triggered buy excessive pressure at work. It generally comes with depression, anxiety, despair and hopelessness – panic attacks kick in, we feel trapped and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts can surface. We start to despise the thing we loved most: our job.
The middle of the spectrum is Orange, and that’s where we need to stay alert. When people who are good at multitasking, have a perfectionistic streak and work well under pressure fall into the orange, they become most susceptible to burnout. Often, a mixture of issues from personal and professional life can become heavy and push them to the edge.
Like all good spectrums, there are many shades of orange, ranging from busy to stressed to super-stressed to near burnout. As we strive to perform and not disappoint, we hear a nagging voice telling us that we just need to work a little harder, we convince ourselves that things will eventually get better after the next deadline. We ignore our body’s warnings about increasing stress and the little aches and pains; instead, we start to sleep less, exercise less, eat too much or too little, and maybe even resort to alcohol and addictive behaviours for stress relief.
There’s nothing wrong with being in the orange sometimes, but you’ve got to listen to your body telling you that things are getting too much. Burnout happens when we ignore early emotional and physical signals telling us to reduce the excessive pressure and to re-evaluate important aspects of our lives.
A simple and effective way to stay out of the red is to ask yourself on a weekly basis “What is my ‘colour’ at the moment?”. Can you be brutally honest with yourself and recognize when you’re dipping into dark orange? Listen carefully and your body will tell you what it needs to be healthy, and how much work is too much. Listening to your body can be as simple as sleeping when you’re tired, eating healthier food, not giving in to alcohol. Whatever it is, do it early, before you slide further down the spectrum.
But what if I’m already in the red?
Recognise the signs and take action to make little or drastic changes to your life. Turn to other people for help, such as your colleagues, your friends and family. Take time off, rest and set time aside regularly to disconnect from technology. If need be, seek help from a psychotherapist to learn effective coping mechanisms to reduce the symptoms of burnout. Ironically going through a breakdown gives you the opportunity to design your breakthrough. You can take time to rethink your life, take a hard look at the quality of your romantic and social life, professional choices, hobbies, and general sense of meaning or purpose. It’s often at our lowest that we get the chance to uncover the unhealthy patterns of behaviour that led us here, and make better decisions for the future.
It’s counterintuitive at first, but it’s precisely because you’re under pressure to perform that you need to make time for self-care, meditation, and slowing down. As my favourite zen quote says: ‘Meditate for one hour every day, unless you are too busy. In that case, meditate for two’.
Muriel Bauer is an experienced psychotherapist, eco-therapist and life coach based in Singapore. She has helped many CEOs and managers in large and small companies restore balance between their hectic professional life and their personal life. She is the founder of her own therapy practice and can be reached at www.almagaiacounselling.com.