Burnout in the workplace has been a popular topic of conversation of late, but I don't believe the main cause of burnout is always the workplace. In fact, I argue that 'life burnout' is just as much of a thing.
It wasn’t until I actually experienced burnout in the workplace that I started noticing how its principles can also apply to many other areas of life as well. So, before I dive into my 'life burnout' theory, let me introduce the concept of workplace burnout.
What is workplace burnout?
When I started to feel exhausted and disengaged with a job that I previously had been so passionate about and motivated to do, I realised I might be experiencing workplace burnout. As someone who prides themselves on being energised and enthused - it felt so crappy to be tired all the time. I was finding it hard to sleep, lacked concentration when I was in the office and felt like whatever tasks or projects I was contributing just weren’t all that important.
According to this article in Acuity mag, burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It combines chronic exhaustion with feeling disconnected to work.
Signs that you might be experiencing burnout at work include:
You’re exhausted all the time and find it hard to make decisions
You feel like you can’t take a break/holiday - because it would all fall apart if you took leave
You used to enjoy your work and get a sense of fulfillment, but now you don’t feel excited anymore, in fact you may even feel resentful of what you’re working on
You’ve lost confidence that you’re actually doing a good job, and don’t feel a sense of accomplishment
Rather than experiencing the adrenaline associated with regular stress, you’re actually feeling disengaged and de-motivated
You wear busy-ness as a badge: many high-performing people also tend to suffer imposter syndrome (meaning we secretly fear we might be discovered to be a bit of a fraud), which can make us feel like showing how busy we are is a way to prove our hard work and value
So, what's this 'life burnout' theory all about?
The thing is, if you take the workplace setting out of any of those symptoms, they really could apply to a number of other scenarios as well - for example, perhaps you're feeling some of these symptoms due to the struggle of getting your finances in order, or from the pressure of optimising your home life to meet the perfect standards we see on Instagram, or perhaps it's from trying to stay on top of all the running around after the kids (if you have them)... or a mix of all of the above!
How often do you really feel like you can take some time out on your own to have a break, without feeling like things would fall apart, or fall behind, if you left ? Maybe you used to get excited to go out and enjoy time with your friends, but now you’re feeling disconnected and disengaged? You might feel the same with a hobby, or maybe your exercise regime - are you struggling to feel motivated for some reason, even though just a couple of months ago you were getting up early to go to the gym every morning?
I often feel exhausted from keeping up with the demands of adulting; it makes me struggle with even the simplest of decisions and I lack motivation when it comes to 'life admin' tasks. I still haven’t claimed back the insurance I’m owed from getting sick on a holiday last year, I haven’t booked in a doctor’s appointment (despite being sent two reminder letters) and it’s been years that I’ve been meaning to combine my super accounts into one… these tasks, although relatively simple, just seem to sit at the back of my mind causing pressure, but I just keep putting them off because there's so much else to do instead.
Is this what 'life burnout' looks like?
In the workplace, the factors blamed for burnout are things like a lack of support or recognition from leadership, consistently working long hours or on weekends and unrealistic deadlines or results expectations. In my opinion, it’s the latter that causes 'life burnout' - the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves for results.
The pressure for instant results can be outrageous. If I'm two weeks into a new exercise regime and I don’t see results - I feel disengaged and unmotivated. If, after watching a couple of episodes of Mari Kondo, I haven't rearranged my whole house to ensure I only have items that 'spark joy', then I'm not doing a good enough job.
Yet, if I spend all day doing chores and running errands, so busy that I don't have a second to spare - then I'll give myself a pat on the back for being so productive. But this kind of constant state of busy is unachievable and unsustainable, and definitely not something we can possibly be striving for all the time.
These standards we set ourselves are unfair, and it’s causing us to feel exhausted more often than not.
So what can we do about it?
This article on burnout in acuity mag suggests some strategies for tackling workplace burnout below, and I’ve added in some notes on how I think these strategies could work on 'life burnout' as well:
Ensure deadlines and expectations are realistic: same goes for the deadlines and expectations you set yourself in life. It just may not be possible or practical for you to exercise five times a week, and that’s completely fine. Why not aim for two or three instead?
Delegate where possible and appropriate: do you need to be the one to complete this task? Maybe it’s your partner or housemate’s turn to stack the dishwasher, do the vacuuming or put the bins out this week?
Say no when you can’t take on more work: or maybe you can re-frame expectations by saying ‘yes,if’. For example, if a friend is asking for a commitment - “Yes of course I can start yoga with you, if you don't mind that I'll only be able to come two days a week, rather than five." etc.
Ask for help/training/support to meet expectations: can you ask a friend or family member for help to complete a task? Perhaps I should take my own advice and ask my friend, who’s an accountant - to help me understand what it is that I need to do with my super!
Reflect on your values and goals and how your work aligns with these: where are you spending most of your time and energy? Are these activities aligning with what you want to achieve from life? I’ve always wanted to help other people, and had the dream of running my own business. When I was spending all of my energy at my full-time job, I felt like I wasn’t really making progress towards my true goals and values. It wasn’t until I decided to spend energy on this blog that I felt more aligned and motivated in all areas of life.
Prioritise your sleep to handle stress better: we all know a good night's sleep is important, but we're typically not very good at it in practice. I’m going to try and enforce a rule where I’m not looking at my phone screen after 8.00pm - maybe this is something that could help you too?
Watch your intake of alcohol and caffeine as that can affect sleep: this is a tough one for wine and coffee lovers like me…but maybe I can limit to one coffee a day, and wine only on Fridays and Saturdays?
Exercise regularly for physical and mental fitness: I think this is super helpful - I make exercise a part of my morning routine and it does wonders for my energy and mental clarity, but it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself (see dot point #1)
Create supportive networks within your team: surround yourself with friends and family who will be there for you - remember, it’s about the quality of these relationships, not quantity, so it’s okay to keep your circle small.
Make time to do things you enjoy: I’ve saved the best until last. This is my absolute passion - and something that I have found to make the most positive impact on how I’m feeling. Taking time to go for a walk along the beach, getting my hair or nails done, going out to a cafe for coffee or lunch, curling up with a good book… all of these things enable a little ‘me time’ to recharge, and remind me of all the wonderful things I have in my life.
Life can be messy, and demanding, and so often it flies by so quickly (even quicker when we're constantly busy!) Try and remember that it's not possible for us to have everything together, or be on top of it all, 100% of the time.
If you're experiencing some of these symptoms of burnout, either in the workplace or other areas of life, I urge you to try and take some time out for yourself. If we can at least try to recognise when we're feeling a little burnt out, and work towards setting more realistic expectations for ourselves - we can reduce the pressure and hopefully start to feel a little more content.
What do you think - have you ever felt some of the symptoms of burnout, in the workplace or in other areas of life? What has made you feel better in times when you’re feeling exhausted and struggling with motivation? I’d love to hear - share in the comments below.