What to do when (or ideally, before) stress reaches epic proportions
The world is seriously stressed out. According to The American institute of Stress, even before the pandemic 94 per cent of workers said that they regularly felt stressed. A peak-pandemic Gallup poll concluded that 2020 “officially became the most stressful year in recent history.” We all get busy sometimes, but feeling constantly and chronically swamped,worried and overwhelmed can lead to burnout, which can have serious consequences.
Think of burnout as stress taken to another level. “Typically, burnout is defined as an extreme state of psychological strain,” says YoungAh Park,an associate professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. It’s a response to facing prolonged, chronic stressors that go beyond your ability or available resources to overcome.
Because so many of us frequently feel stressed, it can be hard to recognize when the line has been crossed. True burnout is different from feeling overextended. Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia,explains, “Burnout combines three key dimensions : overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and a sense of discouragement, inadequacy or low accomplishment.”
Feeling exhausted when you begin working is a red flag. “This is a sign that demands are building faster than you can recover from them,” he says.That fatigue evolves into feelings such as pessimism and withdrawal,“becoming grumpy and cynical about work you used to love—especially feeling that way towards people you're supposed to care about.”
That’s the end stage of burnout, but it takes a while to get there. “At first,we might find ourselves experiencing hyperactivity, trying to manage our stressors by frantically working to reduce them, and juggling more and more simultaneously,” says Emily Balcetis, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at New York University.Unfortunately, this desperation can contribute to making mistakes, losing concentration or even starting to feel emotionally unhinged—all of which pave the way for more chronic issues to develop.
Living at a burnout level of sustained stress can lead to serious health consequences, including problematic sleep patterns, digestion woes andeven a greater risk for depression,heart problems, diabetes and weight gain, according to Balcetis. Perhaps most frightening, a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that people who experience chronic burnout have up to a 35 percent greater risk of early mortality.
Before the stress in your life ramps up to that level, know that experts say there are proactive steps you can take to prevent burnout:
Look for meaning at work
We can tolerate stress longer if we believe we’re doing something purposeful and worthwhile. Balcetis says we’re more likely to experience chronic, burnout-inducing stress when something seems out of our control, against our will or totally meaningless. Try to identify ways in which even the smallest of your daily tasks contributes to the lives of others.“Take stock of what’s on your plate,”Balcetis says. “If you can, cut or outsource one or two of those things that don't personally give you meaning.”
Look for meaning outside of work
If you’re struggling to make your work meaningful, prioritizing life outside of work might be especially beneficial.Research published in BMC Medicine shows that people more likely to experience a greater sense of engagement when on the job are those with a hobby—the ultimate burnout buffer.
Try to separate work and home/outside life
“With boundaries blurring between work and non-work these days, research has suggested that there are some tactics individuals can use,” Park says. She suggests turning off work email notifications on your phone, using separate email accounts for work and personal life and setting up boundaries—physical and temporal—between work and personal life, especially if you work from home.
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Don’t neglect yourself
“Neglecting your diet or eating fast foods or comfort foods can become a way of dealing with stress, but it will rob your body and brain of nutrients necessary to facilitate energy and regulate moods,” says Benjamin Maxson,AMFT, a family therapist in Orange County, California. Physical activity is essential to shaking out stress hormones too. “Many individuals are less active when under stress in order to rest,” Maxson says. But movement is the most natural evolutionary response to our body’s stress. While you don’t have to run away from a mountain lion these days, even light movement helps ‘complete’ the stress cycle, flushing stress hormones out of the bloodstream.
Recognize when it has become too much
Talk to your supervisors when you feel your job should be more manageable,rewarding, and under your control.“It’s very common for superiors to continue to increase tasks over time,”Maxson says, adding that if we don’t communicate our needs or limitations, they may be overlooked. If you don't expect things will improve, consider changing jobs or even careers.
For nurse Wendy Reynolds, director of a hospital intensive care unit in Pennsylvania, stress had always been part of the job. Then the pandemic hit,and the stress ramped up to a whole new level. “I wasn’t sleeping, always had a headache, and was always anxious and worried about everything,”she says. “I knew I needed to leave.”
She realized the ICU had become too much for her, and the stress and long hours weren’t fair to her family, either.She solved her burnout problem by transitioning into a healthcare administration role where she can manage her work-life balance while still having a career that aligns with her passion for clinical health care.
“I love my new job,” she says. “I actually see my family now, and I can use my clinical skills to help leaders at other hospitals improve workflows for their staff, so it’s very rewarding.”If you do feel burnt out, therapy can help you process work-related stress and learn coping strategies, and it can teach you to communicate with your employer and set healthy boundaries.Maxson says cognitive behavioural therapy is especially effective for dealing with workplace burnout.