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What is Burnout and How to Know if You Have It

The first time I experienced burnout I didn't know what it was. I returned to school to earn my second degree when my son was 1 years old. I was fairly new at being a mom, my husband was learning the ropes in his career. We were living in a large city that required him to commute for hours each day. School was easily 3 times the workload of my previous science degree. I was sleeping less than 5 hours most nights, often 1-2 hours during exams. I was having trouble keeping up with all my responsibilities.


And yet I did. This level of stress didn't stop me. I tried to be a good mom as best I could, I did house work, planned and prepared meals, I studied like crazy and kept my grades very high. I was losing it but I was still going.


Fatigue made sense so I never questioned it. I was breastfeeding my son so I suspected lack of sleep and no help from caffeine was why I was tired and I am sure that was a big part of it. My cynicism gradually got worse but in tandem with the cynicism of my classmates. Complaining and judging the system we were in was a bonding ritual for our year. No positivity allowed. It was the inefficacy and a steep decline in my health that forced me into the guidance counsellors office on the brink of my sanity.


Despite my constant cynicism, the school had my back and gently insisted I defer some exams. I then switched into the part time program so I could have more time to study they way I needed to and to spend more time with my family. Despite taking more time to complete the program, I never recovered from burnout while I was there and it took me many months to recover after I graduated.


I find it funny that naturopathic medical school was the least healthy thing I have ever done. Let's talk about why this happened to me and explore if this might be happening to you.


Burnout is often recognized by symptoms of fatigue, cynicism and inefficay

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a medical diagnosis. Burnout is defined as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion due to long term stress. We can usually recognize burnout by experiencing feelings of fatigue, cynicism and inefficacy. This is a common condition that is often temporary and treatable.


The General Symptoms of Burnout
  • Feel tired or drained all the time (this may present as fatigue or "lack of energy")

  • Changes in appetite and/or sleep

  • Muscle pains

  • Recurrent headaches or migraines

  • Frequent illnesses or general decrease in immune function

  • Feelings of self doubt or hopelessness

  • Feeling trapped or defeated

  • Detachment from others, feeling alone, lose of empathy for others

  • Loss of motivation

  • Becoming cynical

  • Overall dissatisfaction, lack of a feeling of personal accomplishment


Why Do People Burnout?

There are many reasons an individual may experience burnout but the underlying theme of all these reasons is an imbalance between work input and reward. The value you receive from work needs to balance the effort you put in. Any situation where reward is lacking will likely result in burnout if sustained.


There are many hardworking people out there who don’t burnout but these people tend to be compensated well for the work that they do. This compensation is more than just monetary and relates to how fair a person feels they are being compensated as well as less tangible value a person might get for the work they do. Volunteers don’t get paid but the feeling of giving back and a sense of community may be providing them with adequate value. Sometimes the comradery or a sense of belonging, or appreciation can augment reward enough to avoid burnout. 

 

Burnout is not restricted to the workplace. People experience burnout in parental and caregiver roles frequently. You can experience burnout in any aspect of your life. It doesn’t make someone a bad person to experience burnout in this capacity. It usually means someone is taking on more than their fair share of duties or they do not have adequate supports. 


Burnout results from an imbalance between effort and reward.

How do I know if I am Burnt Out

If you are suffering from fatigue with no apparent physical cause, have started to feel cynical about what you do and are starting to make more and more mistakes, there is a very good chance you are burnt out. But to be certain, we often use a validated questionnaire. I cannot legally attach the questionnaire due to copyright laws but you can likely find a copy of The Maslach Burnout Inventory online if you look. 

 

Even without the questionnaire, if you feel burnt out, you likely are. I trust my patients perception of themselves more than a questionnaire, though the questionnaire can provide us with some additional details.


Some people assume that when people burnout, they collapse and lose the ability to carry on. This is often not the case at all. Many keep on going despite the burnout, I know I did. Don't assume that just because you have found the energy to complete the necessary tasks to stay afloat another day that you are not in a burnout state.


What Should I do If I Think I Am Burnt Out

I think anyone who is experiencing burnout should seek out help from a couple of sources but I will list a few basic things that some will find helpful. If you need help navigating burnout, I am here for you. If you would rather see someone else, there are several wonderful counsellors in Kelowna (many who work virtually for my out of Kelowna readers). If you are having trouble finding a match, I would be happy to give you some names.


Take Some Space 

Give yourself some space between you and your stressors. This could look like taking a few days off work or hiring a caretaker for a few days to give you some time to think. I have a routine that I employ when I start to burnout that takes half a business day. With practice you can become more efficient.

 

Refrain from Reactive Decision Making 

A burnout state is not associated with the clearest of thoughts so you may regret big decisions you make in this phase. You are also likely to feel differently about things when no longer in a burnout state so it is best to avoid making decisions with permanent outcomes (like quitting your job or making large impulsive purchases).

 

Take Some Time to Evaluate Where the Problem Is

It is easier to adjust your life to fit your needs better when you clearly understand the problems you are facing. I have worksheets I use for this with patients but here are some questions to get you started. 

 

The validated questionnaire mentioned above also can help you determine if you are more facing an over work situation or a lack of reward situation. 

 

  1. What is causing you stress? Name it. Name them all.

  2. What triggered your burnout this time and in the past?

  3. Are you overworked or are you not receiving enough value for your work?

  4. What needs to change for your situation to be sustainable?

  5. Can you reduce your load?

  6. Delegate some tasks?

  7. Hire someone to help?

  8. Are there free resources that can help?

  9. Can you see a counselor to help you reframe or enhance your mindset?

  10. What changes could be made quickly and easily? What changes need more planning and time?


Once you identify the issues you can come up with a plan to address them.
  1. Choose only a few things to work on at a time. If you don't know where to start, focus your efforts at the bottom of the pyramid, build a strong foundation before moving on to the higher concepts.

  2. Make sure there are some guaranteed wins on your list to help improvements feel faster and to increase your confidence.

  3. Split large, overwhelming changes into manageable chucks.

  4. Don't take on too much at a time. If you want to redirect to a different task, put another task on pause. You can toss the changes that disappoint or don't work for you. 

  5. When ready, address the physical symptoms. Burnout often occurs with digestive issues, anxiety, intensified pain, worsened migraines and sleep trouble, among other symptoms. If your burnout has caused you physical or emotional symptoms and you need help, seek out professional help from someone who understands burnout (like me, or a counselor or other health professional). Navigating burnout is easier with a team. Everyone needs a team on their side. 


Journaling can help people with burnout workout what is not sustainable for their situation


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