Burnout: It got to me too
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
After reading countless news articles about worker burnout, I finally experienced it for myself.
Burnout syndrome has always been a thing, but it's never been so top-of-mind or as prevalent in our vernacular as it is now. Like so many other things, we have COVID-19 to thank for this.
According to a 2020 American Psychological Association report, burnout syndrome is on the rise and 79% of American employees experienced work-related stress the month before the survey they took. That report also showed that "three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress including lack of interest, motivation or energy and lack of effort at work."
It turns out that I'm one of those people.
It's such a cliche, but there's tons that I've been juggling in the past two years, not even including work. I'm a master's student at USC and I was dealing with a very unpleasant living situation that forced me to couch surf for eight months before finally finding an apartment. Plus, I have a family, boyfriend and friends that all demand my attention and time to invest in those relationships.
Now, add on a full-time job with a workload that's increased exponentially without increasing the size of my team, and you can start to see where burnout can easily creep in and do serious damage.
It took quite some time to notice, but eventually I noticed my increasing inability to focus for anything more than 10 minutes at a time, struggling to get out of bed as easily as I once did, thinking about work more and more during my off-time, anxiety about little things and a striking disinterest in work and non-work activities.
When you see all of my symptoms spelled out, it seems quite simple to deliver a diagnosis, but as someone experiencing burnout it felt impossible, inconceivable even, that this is what I was experiencing. I'm young, healthy and doing well in life so obviously, I'm immune to burnout.
That's not the case.
My first misconception is that, as a communications professional, I'm not susceptible to burnout. While we most often associate burnout with high-stress professions like being a physician/surgeon, research shows that business executives and parents also experience burnout. So, who's to say that it's not more ubiquitously widespread in the U.S. workforce?
I also didn't realize that burnout is a highly researched topic and the symptoms of onset are relatively linear, or at least in many cases. According to one study, burnout sets in in the series of 12 steps including the following:
Excessive drive/ambition: People start at a new job and take on a new, daunting workload or project and let excessive ambition get the better of them.
Pushing yourself to work harder: Ambition to achieve drives people to work harder and longer.
Neglecting your own needs: People start neglecting their own needs like sleep, self-care, exercise and eating well.
Displacement of conflict: Rather than acknowledge an excessive workload, people place blame on their boss, demands of the job or colleagues for issues.
No time for nonwork-related needs: People revise their values to make work their number one priority and focus even when they're with family or friends.
Denial: People become increasingly less patient with those around them but fail to take responsibility for being stretched too thin. Rather they place blame on others and oftentimes see them as incompetent and lazy.
Withdrawal: People begin to pull away from family and friends while also becoming cynical. Invitations to parties and social events become burdensome and exhausting rather than enjoyable.
Behavioral changes: People can become more agitated and snap easily at people, both at work and at home.
Depersonalization: People grow to feel detached from their own life and ability to control it.
Inner emptiness or anxiety: People begin feeling empty or anxious. Some may begin thrill seeking behaviors to cope.
Depression: People feel their life has lost meaning and significance while also losing their ability to cope.
Mental/physical collapse: Intense stress and emotions cause the mind and/or body to shut down and may require medical attention.
As I read through these, I caught myself thinking "This is an over-exaggeration. Burnout can't get this serious. Maybe burnout happens while other things in someone's life happen to cause something as serious as depression."
Then, I realized how far down this 12-step list I've gotten and immediately recognized how deeply burnout can negatively impact mental and physical wellbeing. Why? Because it affected me, and remnants are still very present in my life.
I'm certainly not the spry entry-level coordinator I was when I started, so energetic and eager to prove my skills and worth. I'm also not incapacitated by an overwhelming pressure to take on an unsustainable amount of work. But, fluctuating between low- to mid-level burnout is also taxing.
The wounding irony, however, is that combatting burnout, a syndrome caused by too much work, requires a great deal of work and effort. It requires setting boundaries, sticking with a routine, investing in relationships, taking time off of work to decompress and reset your mind, prioritizing self-care and advocating for the same healthy habits among your teams and departments at work.
It's not easy to be burnt out, or to do something to address your burnout. But, longterm burnout is simply not an option for those of us looking for a balanced, sustainable and healthy life.