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Tired of Being Tired? 5 Ways of Overcoming Burnout that Work

Psychology Today | Anna Katharina Schaffner

Are you tired of living to work rather than working to live? Perhaps you are already in the grips of burnout – feeling chronically exhausted, disillusioned and overwhelmed by your mountain-sized to-do list? You may have subscribed to numerous productivity enhancement regimes that somehow only ended up making things worse. You may be fed up with people telling you to breathe, meditate, take a break, police your boundaries more rigorously and to just say no. If it were that simple, you would already be doing it, right? And there is a reason why these things in isolation do not work. Burnout is a complex systemic crisis that requires a complex systemic response. First of all, know that you are not alone. Exhaustion and burnout are at an all-time high. It is fair to say that they are the bane of our age. In a 2022 survey from the American Psychological Association, more than 50% of workers have reported that they are currently experiencing burn-out. The ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’ are trends that show the impact of burnout on the health of the wider economy. But perhaps more importantly, stress and exhaustion pose significant dangers to our individual physical and mental health.[1] Chronic stress impacts our ability to relate to others and to take proper care of ourselves. It can cause significant psychological distress, including anxiety and depression. It can suck all the joy out of our lives and turn us into zombie-esque creatures, who are neither fully alive nor fully dead. Exhaustion and burnout are also classic catch-22 conditions: when we feel we are falling behind with our tasks and losing control, we often no longer allow ourselves properly to rest. But that is a catastrophic reaction, for not resting makes us even less likely to work well again. We end up languishing in the burn-out zone, constantly reprimanding ourselves about our diminished productivity and getting ever worse. Burnout particularly affects people who are conscientious, committed, and deeply passionate about their work. It is a great danger for people who take on lots of responsibilities, and for all those amongst us who are highly idealistic and driven by the desire to make the world a better place. It also disproportionally affects perfectionists. So, what can we really do when we are on the brink of or in the grips of burnout?

1. Accept that Burnout is a Structural Problem

Here is the puzzling thing: in the vast majority of cases it is not our own bad time management or lack of resilience that is causing our exhaustion. Research has shown again and again that in the majority of cases, burnout is rooted in toxic working environments that are making us ill.[2] In other words, it is a structural not a personal problem – caused by lack of resources, poor management, unreasonable deadlines, too-high workloads and badly thought-through processes. If these are paired with lack of respect and appreciation, they can become destructive.

Why does that insight matter and how can it help us? We often feel terribly guilty and ashamed about our decline in productivity. We tend to think our burnout is our fault, that, somehow, we were not strong or efficient enough to succeed in our jobs. That’s a hugely unhelpful assumption. A recent Gallup survey established the following top five reasons for burnout:

  • unfair treatment at work

  • unmanageable workload

  • lack of role clarity

  • lack of communication and support

  • unreasonable time pressure

Note that lack of resilience or willpower is not amongst them. So, as the poet John O’Donohue writes in his poem ‘For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing’: ‘Be excessively gentle with yourself’. When we feel particularly low, we should remind ourselves about the external causes that have caused our suffering, rather than constantly blaming ourselves.

2. Accept that Burnout is a Cultural Problem

In addition to being a structural problem, burnout is also a cultural problem. Most of us have internalised deeply-held cultural beliefs about work, time and our value. Nowadays, we expect work not just to deliver a salary, but also purpose, meaning, identity, status – perhaps even salvation. And this entanglement of work with deeper values can be perilous. Inner work with a burnout coach or a therapist is often needed to unravel the many ways in which much deeper, more existential assumptions and beliefs are tied up with how we think about work and time.

3. Deepen Your Self-Knowledge

A crucial step on our journey from exhaustion to vitality is to deepen our self-knowledge. Socrates declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is true that if we remain in the dark about our natural preferences, our core strengths and weaknesses, our values and our hopes for the future, we will find it very hard to live coherent and fulfilling lives. Only when we know our patterns, and where they come from, can we manage them effectively. Understanding our histories keeps us from blindly repeating unproductive behaviours that no longer serve us. And that includes our work histories. Self-knowledge also leads to a kinder and more compassionate view of what we may regard as our shortcomings. Without self-knowledge we will not be able to make wiser choices. If we do not understand our basic motivations and fears, we will be tossed around by our emotions like small vessels helplessly adrift on a choppy sea.

Self-knowledge is one of the few forms of knowledge that you cannot just obtain on your own. You will need help in order to truly see your blind spots. Coaches, therapists and mentors can be your mirror and help you see yourself from completely different perspectives. We can help you gently to challenge and let go of some deeply held-beliefs that are no longer serving you.

4. Determine What Is and What Is Not Within Our Control

Draw up a list of your core internal and external stressors. What exactly is it that is depleting you so? Is it specific people, deadlines, workload, time pressure, or inner noise? Then, reflect on which of these stressors are in your control and which ones are not. With my coaching clients, I work with the Stoic ‘Circle of Control’ technique – a brilliant tool for assessing what we can and what we cannot change, and how we can commit our energy to the former rather than wasting it by fretting about the latter. You can find a free circle of control exercise here. Energy is in short supply when we are exhausted, burnt-out or feeling low, so questions of energy conservation are not a trivial matter.

5. See Burnout as a Learning Opportunity

Burnout is serious. It is what the writer Josh Cohen describes as a ‘small apocalypse of the soul’.[3] Burnout is often the result of long-standing bad working habits and deeply internalised damaging beliefs about ourselves and our value. It will take time and work to unravel these beliefs, but it will be time well-spent. Burnout is a warning signal. It is our body saying ‘no – you cannot go on like this’. It forces us to stop what we are doing and to reflect on how to work in a way that is sustainable and balanced, and to make lasting changes. The Buddhist nun Pema Chödron writes: ‘Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.’ That is true of burnout, too. Harsh self-talk and productivity enhancement regimes won’t fix our problem. And neither will abstract insight if it is not paired up with radical acceptance and value-led action.

References [1] See, for example, D. A. Kalmbach, J.R. Anderson & C.L. Drake, C.L., “The impact of stress on sleep: Pathogenic sleep reactivity as a vulnerability to insomnia and circadian disorders,” Journal of Sleep Research, 27 (2018), 1–39; H. G. Kim, E.J. Cheon, D.S. Bai, Y.H. Lee & B.H. Koo, “Stress and heart rate variability: A meta-analysis and review of the literature,” Psychiatry Investigation, 15 (2018), 235–245; P. H. Wirtz & R. von Känel, “Psychological stress, inflammation, and coronary heart disease,” Current Cardiology Reports, 19 (2017), 1–10; H. Yaribeygi, Y. Panahi, H. Sahraei, T. P. Johnston & A. Sahebkar, “The impact of stress on body function: A review,” EXCLI Journal, 16 (2017), 1057–1072; L. Stojanovich & D. Marisavljevich,“Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease,” Autoimmunity Reviews, 7 (2008), 209-213; R. Sinha, R. “Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141 (2008), 105-130; and M.R. Salleh, “Life events, stress, and illness,” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 15 (2008), 9–18. [2] Christina Maslach, Wilmar Schaufeli, Michael P. Leiter, ‘Job Burnout’, in S. T. Fiske et al. (eds), Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (2001), 397–422. [3] Josh Cohen, Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (London: Granta, 2018), p. 80.

Image: Oscar Keys @Unsplash.

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