Recover From Burnout by Judy Klipin is published by Bookstorm and is available now. This extract is published by permission.
Burnout is a result of doing too many of the wrong things.
In my 12-year career as a life coach I’ve seen burnout in many and varied clients. There are the high-powered executives (men and women) who are so tired and stressed that the only things keeping them going are the caffeine, cigarettes and high-carb foods with which they’re fuelling their exhausted bodies. There are the tearful and vulnerable women who are so drained by the demands of family, friends and work that they have no energy left over to spend on looking after themselves. There are the angry and resentful men who try to drown their disappointment and disillusionment in alcohol. And almost every one of my clients who works in the public sector shows signs of burnout, from stressed and traumatised police officers, to exhausted and overwhelmed senior managers, to anxious and disengaged workers. Men and women from all walks of life are vulnerable to burnout.
I believe that we get burnout from lying to/forcing/cajoling ourselves into doing things that are wrong for us. We get burnout because we have leaky boundaries: we let people in instead of keeping them out; we say yes when we should say no; we go places, do things and see people that not only don’t spark joy, but actually evoke despair.
Doing what we don’t want to or feel comfortable doing burns up more energy than we get back. It doesn’t matter if it’s little (answering a phone call from someone who drains us) or large (staying in a job that we hate or that’s at odds with our personal value system), every time we force ourselves to do something that feels wrong to us, we’re using up far more energy than we’re getting back. And if we’re losing energy rather than generating it – or at the very least breaking even – we will get burnout. The rate of energy loss determines the speed and severity with which we develop the burnout. It isn’t just that our energy is drained by unrewarding mental, physical and emotional effort. The resentment, anxiety, frustration and stress that accompany doing things that are wrong for us result in floods of harmful and even toxic chemicals being released into our bodies. The noxious combination of energy deficit and stress-hormone cocktail leads to physical, emotional and mental weakness and disease that can end up as a whole range of serious conditions. Burnout left unaddressed progresses and can lead to full-blown depression, diabetes and even heart disease – not to mention divorce, disillusionment and dread!
There are many flavours of burnout. There’s the need-a-caffeine-fix-to-get-you-going-in-the-morning burnout that has you eating everything containing caffeine, sugar, carbs or salt that you can lay your hands on. There’s combative burnout, which makes you pick a fight with everyone – family, friends, colleagues, strangers in traffic… There’s the not-wanting-to-talk-to-anyone-or-do-anything (other than lie in bed and watch undemanding movies or read trashy novels) burnout. There’s the miserable, depressed and dispirited burnout that makes you question every life choice you’ve ever made. There’s the burnout that has you so bone weary and so depleted that you can’t even pull a door closed, let alone yourself towards yourself. And there are many others too.
When I first started telling people about my burnout work I was met with a variety of responses: ‘There’s no such thing as burnout’ (from a specialist physician); ‘I’ve noticed that people who exercise regularly don’t seem to get burnout’ (from an emergency-room doctor); ‘Poor people can’t afford to have burnout’; ‘It’s just middle-class laziness and self-indulgence’. For quite some time I felt like a(n almost) lone voice in the wilderness, speaking up about something I saw to be a serious and chronic health issue. Now, at last, burnout is starting to be increasingly recognised. I suspect it’s because we just can’t ignore any longer how exhausted, overwhelmed and depleted we are as individuals and collectively. Burnout is a real thing and it’s a real, and growing, problem. Finally, it’s being acknowledged and taken seriously. More and more people are talking about it, reading about it and acting on it. Thankfully there is a much greater awareness and acceptance of burnout as a genuine condition.
Burnout is an epidemic
Burnout has long been associated with overworked and stressed corporate highflyers, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s a condition that spreads its reach far and wide. Burnout has moved out of the boardroom and is present in every nook and cranny of our society. A couple of years ago I was invited to discuss burnout with the host of a late night radio show that gets broadcast to the whole of my home city, Johannesburg. Jozi is South Africa’s biggest city and the capital of the richest province in the country. It’s recognised as the economic powerhouse of the country and the region. Joburgers are proud of the fact that we work hard and play hard in a city that’s always busy and bustling.
I’m never surprised by the number of people who listen to and call in on late night radio, but the range and content of the many, many calls and text messages was a little startling. They served to confirm for me something that I’d long suspected: burnout is an epidemic. Men and women, young and old, and from all walks of life, were calling in to share their stories and ask questions. Housewives, students, young adults in their first jobs, executive businesspeople, teachers, mothers, doctors, nurses, police officers, social workers, journalists… all were complaining of feeling run down, exhausted and overwhelmed by life in general and their lives in particular.
For a long while I wondered if the high incidence of burnout was a South African thing. There’s no doubt that South Africans have a very particular and peculiar relationship with stress, anxiety and fear. For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve lived in a country and within a society that’s unpredictable and inconsistent. We’ve experienced change and uncertainty, distress about the past, and fear for the future, and no small degree of political and social instability. I think it’s fair to say South Africans are burnout overachievers!
That said, the more aware and attuned I became to all things burnout, the more I saw evidence of it farther afield. Social media is filled with discussions about burnout. LinkedIn and other professional networking sites feature articles on burnout by the likes of businesswoman Arianna Huffington, research professor Brené Brown and entrepreneur Richard Branson. If you type ‘burnout’ into any search engine, millions of results come up.
What’s the difference between burnout and depression?
On that radio show, what I found to be very concerning was the number of callers who seemed to have tipped over from burnout and into depression. Because burnout and depression look very similar, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. I’ve been diagnosed with depression when I thought I had burnout, and with burnout when I thought I had depression. When the lines are blurred it takes a very skilled and experienced professional to differentiate between the two conditions. Burnout and depression can both show themselves through changes in eating and sleeping patterns, irritability, social withdrawal, loss of interest in things that used to feel significant, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, difficulty concentrating and – perhaps most obviously – a deep and abiding exhaustion.
It’s the nature of the exhaustion that helps to discern between burnout and depression. I believe that depression is a feeling of being tired of life whereas burnout is a feeling of being tired from life. I can’t stress enough, however, how important it is to seek professional help in getting the correct diagnosis and support for whichever condition you’re experiencing.
In my view, burnout evolves into depression when we ignore and ignore and ignore our exhaustion and our body and its pleas for help and change until eventually our spirit starts to give up hope. And having to deal with depression on top of burnout is a double whammy that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.