Burnout: How To Avoid It, How To Overcome It.

In the past, I have written here about how to take care of yourself during the pandemic.  As co-chairs of the mental health committee of the President’s Council for Campus Well-being, Emily Fraizer and I have shared information with the campus-community about surge capacity and how to deal with your surge capacity being challenged.

Today, I want to talk about what happens when these areas of stress continue for a length of time and intensity that they begin to overwhelm.  In other words, what is burnout, how can you avoid it, and how can you best deal with it if it happens to you?

burnout with flames

What is Burnout?

Burnout is most often seen as being caused by stress attributed to one’s job, but stressors outside the workplace can also contribute to burnout.  The stress of the pandemic and how it has changed our jobs and our day-to-day lives is a perfect example; as is the unknown we are currently living in related to both of these areas.  Various personality factors also have an effect on whether an individual develops burnout.  If you have a high level of resiliency, you are less likely to succumb to burnout.  The same is true if you see the world from a more optimistic, versus a pessimistic, viewpoint.

Burnout is defined as a negative reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, becoming cynical about the job, and feelings of reduced professional ability.

Stages of Burnout

The literature on burnout has described it in a variety of stages or levels.  We will talk today about a two level description of burnout.

Level 1
Level 1 describes daily burnout.

Signs and symptoms for Level 1 burnout include:

  • Feeling mentally fatigued at the end of the day.
  • Feeling unappreciated, frustrated, bored, tense, or angry as a result of contact(s) with clients, colleagues, supervisors, assistants, or other potentially significant people.
  • Experiencing physical symptoms (e.g., headache, backache, upset stomach).
  • The pace of the day’s activities and/or requirements of present tasks seem greater than personal or professional resources available.
  • Tasks required on the job are repetitious, beyond your ability, or require high-intensity on a continuous basis.

Level 2
Level 2 describes burnout leading to growing levels of distress.

Signs and symptoms of Level 2 burnout include:

  • Idealism and enthusiasm for career is waning and disillusionment about work is present on a regular basis.
  • Experiencing a general loss of interest in one’s field for a month or longer.
  • Pervasive feelings of boredom, stagnation, apathy, and frustration.
  • Being ruled by a schedule and viewing those you interact with at work impersonally.
  • Losing criteria with which to judge the effectiveness of your work.
  • An inability to get refreshed by other elements of your life.
  • A loss of interest in professional resources (e.g., books, conferences).
  • Intermittent, lengthy (i.e., a week or more) periods of irritation, sadness, and anxiety that do not seem to lift even with some effort to correct the apparent causes.

While recognizing the levels and symptoms of burnout is important, to avoid the negative effects of burnout you need to develop healthy prevention mechanisms and ways to recover once burnout has developed.stress relief this way road sign

Prevention

Many of the prevention efforts for burnout will sound similar to things we have discussed in the past in relation to taking care of yourself during the pandemic.  Prevention efforts include putting the basic tenants of stress management into your daily life, with a focus on physical health and psychological stability.

Pick one or two from each area below and focus on them until you feel comfortable, then move on to perfecting others.

Physical Health

    • Sleep
      Without enough sleep, the quality of what you do will decrease; rising early requires going to bed at a reasonable hour.
    • Food
      Eating three light meals, at a reasonable pace, and being mindful of the nutritional value of what you eat is one of the best ways to keep weight down and nourishment and energy up.
    • Exercise
      – Taking a fairly brisk walk each day is a good minimum exercise.
      – Exercising on a consistent basis is better than some irregular or future extensive exercise plan that you fail at and feel guilty about.
    • Leisure
      Relaxing with your feet up and/or being involved in activities that provide genuine enjoyment are a necessity. Leisure helps us “flow” with life’s joys and problems in a more accepting philosophical way.
    • Pacing
      – Taking a little more time to get to a place makes the trip more relaxing; stopping every hour or hour and a half to get out of the car and stretch on long trips makes them a lot more enjoyable and helps increase stamina.
      – Likewise, taking breaks when you feel the need makes your productivity better.
      – The important lesson here is to use any technique necessary to slow yourself down so you don’t rush to the grave missing the scenery in your life along the way.

     

    quotation mark
    If laughter is good medicine, then surely laughing at yourself is healing.

    Psychological Stability

    • Laughter
      If laughter is good medicine, then surely laughing at yourself is healing. We all tend to take ourselves too seriously.  Doing something about this can significantly reduce unnecessary stress and help improve one’s perspective on self and life.
    • Values
      – Know what is important and what isn’t; by knowing what you believe to be really important, you can choose easily and well between alternatives.
      – Discover, or rediscover, a purpose for the work you do. Look past the paycheck and find a deeper meaning in your work; this can boost your morale and make your work more rewarding.
    • Control
      – Be careful to discern between what you can control and what you can’t; while worrying about something when it happens is natural, continuing to preoccupy yourself with it is not.
      – When you catch yourself worrying endlessly, tease yourself that you must be “the world’s best worrier.” Then plan what you can do about it, and let it go.  If and when it comes up again, review the process until it lessens or stops. This technique may need a good deal of practice for it to “take root” in your attitude.
    • Self-Appreciation/Gratitude
      – Reflect on what gifts have been given you, recall them each day in detail and be grateful for them by promising to nurture and share them – not in a compulsive manner, but in a generous way.

      • This means having low expectations that people will respond to as you would wish or appreciate your efforts.
      • However, simultaneously still try to maintain high hopes that you can appreciate multiple measures of “success” in your work so you don’t miss the good that is occurring before you because of a narrow success-oriented viewpoint. For instance, too often we measure what we achieve at the end of a process and fail to see or value appropriately all of the good we did along the way.
    • Involvement, Not Over-Involvement
      – Be active in what you feel is meaningful (the kind of things you would be pleased to reflect on at the very end of life, not necessarily those things that others might feel are impressive or important).
      – Assertiveness on your part both to volunteer to be involved in what you believe is good and to say no to demands that aren’t is also an essential part of increasing your involvement in stimulating activities and curbing (whenever possible) ones that are draining.
    • Support Group
      Have people in your life who care; connect with them frequently. Ideally, among this group should be a variety of psychologically healthy friends who can challenge, support, encourage, teach, and make you laugh.
    • Escape
      – There are times when we should “run away”, because facing things directly in all of our relationships all the time would be debilitating. To do this you can use novels, breaks during the day, movies, walks, or hobbies.
    • Be Spontaneous
      – A small creative action or change during the day or week can make life much more fun. This is a lot more practical than waiting for a yearly vacation.
    • Be Careful of Negativity
      – Often we hear negative comments like thunder and praise like a whisper.
      – Be aware of negative tendencies you might have (e.g., to see things in black-and-white terms, to exaggerate the negative, to let one negative event contaminate the whole day or week, or to discount other positive events).
      – Then answer these thoughts with more accurate positive ones.

      • For example, if you feel slightly depressed and check your thinking, you may see that because one thing went wrong today, you are saying to yourself that you are really a failure at what you do.
      • By recognizing this exaggeration as nonsense, you can tell yourself more correctly that you made a mistake, not that you are a mistake.
      • Following this, you can then recall successes you have had and bring to mind the faces of those who have been grateful for your presence in their lives. This will show you the face of love in the world and help break the back of the strong, seamless negative thinking you are under at the time.
      • Remember, negative thinking takes a good deal of energy. Stop it and a great deal of energy will be freed up for growth and enjoyment.
    • Check your ratios in the areas of:
      • Stimulation and quiet.
      • Reflection and action.
      • Work and leisure.
      • Self-care and care of others.
      • Self-improvement and patience.
      • Future aspirations and present positive results.
      • Involvement and detachment.

WellTrack App

WellTrack App
Screenshot of the WellTrack app.

Preventing and/or recovering from burnout takes time and focus.  In order to help you be successful in this endeavor, the NDSU Counseling Center and the President’s Council for Campus Well-being are excited to announce the launch of WellTrack, a mental health and wellness application now available to the entire NDSU community.

WellTrack is a FREE resource for all members of the NDSU community and can be downloaded from the app store appropriate to your devices.  WellTrack allows individuals to track their moods, feelings and thoughts while also providing resources and strategies to support balancing stress.  WellTrack helps individuals better understand and maintain overall mental health and support wellness.

I encourage you to take advantage of the WellTrack app and to try implementing strategies related to successful stress management. I also encourage you to seek professional help if your feelings of burnout are interfering with your ability to have be happy on a day-to-day basis, have successful relationships, or perform successfully in your job.

Additional posts regarding student well-being:

  1. Recognizing Student Distress in Online Classes
  2. How do we promote health and well-being in the classroom?

 


About the author:

Bill Burns

Bill Burns is the director of the Counseling Center at NDSU. He is a licensed psychologist in North Dakota. Prior to coming to NDSU, he was the director of Counseling Services at St. Lawrence University, a private school in upstate New York. He received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota- Morris, a Master’s degree in Community Counseling from Truman State University, and a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology from Iowa State University.

He has two grown daughters and loves to spend his free time reading and participating in marathons, ultra-marathons, and triathlons.

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