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Burnout is a term that is used a lot these days, possibly as an indication of the increasingly hectic lifestyles we are living. This definition from Psychology Today is one of the most succinct definitions I have found, though it relates primarily to work burnout:
“Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when you’re not in control of how you carry out your job, when you’re working toward goals that don’t resonate with you, and when you lack social support. If you don’t tailor your responsibilities to match your true calling, or at least take a break once in a while, you could face a mountain of mental and physical health problems.”
A more specific form of burnout, called compassion fatigue, is considered to affect people who are in care-giving roles, whether that is because of their professional role or personal responsibilities and, sometimes, a combination of both. This can be considered a form of vicarious or secondary trauma.
It is also increasingly recognised that people who participate in campaigns for social change or justice can experience compassion fatigue. When I was working for Counselling for Social Change, this was a major focus of the work I did with my clients.
Sometimes there will be an event that signals the beginning of the burnout: a health crisis (our own or that of a close friend or family member), relationship breakdown, a change in our paid work environment, a change in our academic environment, or a larger community or societal change such as climate change or the EU Referendum result. These are things over which we may have little immediate influence, so can result in a increased levels of anxiety.
I delivered workshops at the Off-Grid festival (2016, 2017 and 2018) with my husband, exploring how we know we are burning out and what we can do about it.
I am indebted to the workshop participants for their honesty in exploring what can be a difficult topic and I’d like to share some of what they said here.
What are the signs of burnout?
Drinking too much alcohol, doing too many drugs and/or doing both more often
Not sleeping well and/or sleeping too much
Becoming isolated from friends and family
Eating habits deteriorating, eating too much junk food or not eating at all
Vague health complaints, like stomach trouble and headaches
Not keeping to commitments, either social or professional; letting people down
Feeling angry and getting angry with people for no good reason, blaming people inappropriately
Feeling apathetic and loss of meaning – ‘why am I doing this?’
Feeling confused and distracted and/or seeking distraction
Feelings of paranoia and being over-sensitive
Neglecting self-care, such as hygiene and exercise
Feeling like nothing is ever enough and feeling like quitting
Feeling out of control, so trying to control more (micromanaging)
Not trusting others to get the work done properly
Feeling ashamed that we are not ‘good enough’ to do the work
Not being able to say ‘No’ even though we want to
What can we do about it?
The workshop participants seemed united in the opinion that reaching out to someone we trust and asking for help is the first step in addressing burnout. This could be a close friend or colleague, family member, union representative, line manager, GP or therapist. Many employers have Employee Assistance Programmes offering time-limited free support, details of which should be in your Employee Handbook.
Another option many participants listed was taking the time to reflect on which commitments can be given lower priority so that we can make the time to do what we need to look after ourselves, even if that is as simple as taking a proper lunch break.
We also reflected on what we were doing before the burnout set in – this can be a way to uncover what daily or weekly practices we can re-instate so that we can feel a bit more like our ‘normal’ selves.
Finally, a big theme in the workshops was coming to terms with the reality that we may not be able to solve our work, family and social problems overnight and that we will be better equipped to address life’s challenges if we take the time to maintain our own emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical health.
If you would like to talk about your concerns regarding burnout, please get in touch with me by mobile or email so we can arrange a face-to-face session. Please do not provide much detail in your email or mobile message – just let me know that burnout is your concern and how to contact you.
If you have any concerns about physical health, including alcohol and substance misuse, that you think might be related to burnout, please contact your GP so they can determine if any medical intervention is required.
If you think your experience of burnout is a result of a traumatic event, please see here for more information about trauma treatment. I can also discuss this with you.
The Transition Towns network also has resources addressing the need for self-care while involved in campaigning work.