A (very) short guide for every office human
We're total optimists, therefore we love saying that office humans are divided into two: those who love their job and those who didn't yet find their most suitable position. That being said, the ”work culture” was (mostly) almost ever flawed, in that results were held in a much higher regard than well being. Sure, there are a lot of awesome companies out there who decided to walk that extra-mile in ensuring the happiness and health (both physical and mental) of their employees but make no mistake, in so many different places, all over the world, things are not at all this cozy. Not by a long shot.
Then there's the current state of the world. One year later and the pandemic is still very much a part of our daily life and the struggle is real. More real than ever, perhaps. Maybe because we miss the interaction. Maybe because we cannot shake this feeling of uncertainty. Jobs are lost every day and the ”work culture” keeps pressing us into delivering more and more results, faster and faster, so that our position could remain ”safe”. Things are not so different if we work for ourselves either. There are days in which we feel the need to do a three-man job single-handedly, in half the time, just to make sure we're still on track. What track? We sometimes forget.
Let's leave the current context out for a while though, for the sake of the argument. Burnout syndrome was not created in the last year. It's been with us, lurking around, for a very long time and only in recent times have we managed to truly detect it. To name it, to understand it and to be frank and honest about it and call it a problem, in order to properly confront it and beat (the s**t out of) it. So what is burnout then? In short, it is that state of mind fuelled by long-term, unresolved exhaustion and stress, usually as a result of over-working. And no, it doesn't just affect your professional life, it affects your personal one as well. It also does not get better with time if you are not taking the right steps and measures. So how exactly should you do that if, of course, you find yourself navigating these troubled waters?
First and foremost, you should be aware of the symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, burnout does not mean ”stressed”. While stress is mostly caused by emotional excitement (which tends to sound way cooler than it really is, unfortunately) and fear of letting one (or a team for that matter) down or just the plain fear of failing a task, the state of stress does not eliminate the innate desire to continue to perform. If anything, being stressed often puts you in that ”survival” professional mode in which you're fighting to find the best solutions. To complete a task. To a better or more suitable time management. To a more optimal work-rest-personal time balance.
Furthermore, stress is more easily perceived by those around you, which might come in handy in times of crisis. That simple ”you need to take it easy”, uttered at the right moment, might actually be a life saver. Chronic burnout on the other hand can be more difficult to spot.
The more common symptoms include a lack of commitment, the burning desire to abandon most tasks, emotional numbness, the feeling of failing or disappointing others and an ever growing sensation of being overwhelmed. Headaches, back pain and even muscular pain may occur (and are not at all that uncommon) and depression often also rises from chronic burnout. What's also really scary is the fact that, according to a new British study, the average office professional reaches a point of burnout by the age of 32.
The stages of burnout
Burnout does not come out of nowhere. According to most studies, just like grief & loss, it has 5 distinct stages. The first one, sometimes referred to as ”the honeymoon stage”, usually starts with the desire to prove yourself at your job, be that a new one or not. While you'll be able to find joy and satisfaction with most tasks, you may start to experience ”predicted” stresses of the initiatives you’re undertaking.
You could now say ”hey, but that's most people with decent to cool jobs” and you would be totally right. In fact, sociologists already theorised that, by creating good, healthy coping mechanisms and strategies in this first stage, we could be able to ”loop it” forever. Those include, obviously, at least some sort of a daily routine, understanding that there's more to life than just work and all those small, positive steps toward well being practices.
”The onset” is the second stage, in which the onset of stress starts making an entry, beginning with the awareness that some days just plain suck. Optimism is still active as both a coping mechanism and a shield, yet you might experience both anxiety or even fatigue. You also start questioning your work process and your ability to make decisions, especially in more difficult situations, whilst headaches, arrhythmia, high blood pressure and even bruxism are not uncommon.
With the third stage, chronic stress has officially entered the building. Your optimism starts fading away and most professional situations start seeming more and more stressful. Gradually, the lack of commitment becomes the new norm and apathy starts kicking in as well. Symptoms from the second stage may also worsen.
”Burnout” is the second to last stage itself. With symptoms more and more powerful, sometimes to critical levels, daily activities become a burden. Hardwired to stop being effective, the brain goes into survival-mode and you could find yourself incapable of concentrating anymore. Neglecting personal activities and more and more frustrated, one will usually start developing ”escapist mentality and behaviour”. Moreover, the desire for self isolation and abandonment (of both work, friends and tasks at hand) becomes a constant, while prior symptoms further worsen.
It might come as a surprise, but the last stage of ”burnout” is not burnout itself but rather ”habitual chronic burnout”. In short, this means that the symptoms of burnout become so hardwired in an individual that she or he stops experiencing them from time to time but rather start functioning in this new paradigm. Full-time. It is here where the thin red line between burnout and depression gets completely blurred and chronic mental fatigue stops being an issue and starts becoming a full fledged (medical) condition.
What's the solution then? In short, there's no ”one size fits all solution”. It all depends to the current state you're in. If you are somewhere in the first three stages, focusing on well-being rituals could work great for you:
Start with the most important thing: set some limits. Acknowledge the fact that your (mental) health should be imperative and do not be afraid to say ”No”. To projects. To tasks. To over-time commitments. You could ”impose” a ”No emails after 6 p.m.” for example, leaving enough room for day to day work activities and a more than reasonable ”window” in which clients can establish contact. Oh, and don't forget: saying ”No” from time to time will also give you the chance to say ”Yes” more often. To projects and things that really make you happy.
Continue by creating healthy little habits. Start with mornings, the most important part of the day for all those office humans out there who tend to work more than the average person. Don't jump directly into tasks. Make room for a nice breakfast, a glorious cup of tea and at least one daily ritual, may it be reserved for meditation, a short jog, 15-30 minutes of reading or just the simple joy of listening to a record.
Stick to a routine. Eat at designated times and sleep according to a schedule as well. Don't push for a pre-designed pattern though. People are different. You are unique. Create your routine depending on your ”inner clock”. Maybe you're an early bird. Maybe you're a night owl. Find a schedule that suits you best but keep it healthy.
Find time for a hobby. Yeah, there's always time for that, don't let anyone tell you differently. It doesn't need to be a daily activity. It does however need to be something you're passionate about. Something that brings you joy. Something that puts a smile on that pretty face. Find it. Embrace. Let it make you feel alive and positive.
Take a break. We made it sound like rope-a-dope for it must be a constant. Take a break from technology at least a couple of hours every day. Take a break for at least 5-10 minutes every hour as well, if you can afford it. Do some stretching, listen to some music, take a short walk, make plans for world domination. Ok, maybe cut the last one out. Maybe? In Romania we have a saying: long and often breaks are the key to great success. Don't take it literally, though. Moderation is what we're suggesting.
If you are experiencing ”full burnout”, the first step towards recovery should be the acknowledgement of your problem. However strong the desire to keep taking jabs at tasks, you'll need to prioritise your health. The second step? Seeking help. There's no shame in admitting you're overworked. No shame at all, do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Find comfort in your friends or family, in your colleagues as well and even in professional support when needed. They do know best, remember that.
You may need to make some adjustments. Maybe even change your work environment. Certainly to reassess your priorities and objectives, for something is obviously not working right. Have no fear. Embrace the change for your own sake. There's more to life than work. And no, that does not mean that the work you're doing is not important. Not at all. It simply means that you're entitled to a life of your own and that self worth should be applied to every aspect of your existence.
PS: Stop buying into viral mumbo-jumbo. Remember that ”classic” Confucius saying: ‘Do what you love and you will never work for a day in your life’? You probably do. Well...he never said that (of course he didn't). The closest ”western” translation to what he said would go (something) like this: “Knowing it is not as good as loving it. Loving it is not as good as delighting in it.” Not at all the same. If anything, he possibly talked about the best attitude or practice for learning. That is it.
PPS: The writer of this article is currently taking the needed steps in managing to defeat burnout. So no, you are not alone. You are not the only one. Know that.