A colleague from our Humanoo team recently returned from holiday and told us over lunch that after only a few days back at work she could barely feel the effects of her break. Why was that? During her time away, work had piled up and she was now worried about keeping up with all these tasks. On top of it all, the unbearable heat we’re experiencing at the moment makes one even more irritable than before.
“Oh no,” we thought to ourselves, “that sounds awful” – and right away we made the #antiburnout topic a priority in our editorial schedule and got the team looking into it closely.
After all, one thing often leads to another in the office and before we know it, we find ourselves stressed and glued to our screens, forgetting everything around us. Since we are a health app, this month’s theme is a very special challenge for us. We would like to delve deeper and inspire you to consciously recognise and reflect on stress.
So what exactly is this “burnout”?
It already starts with the fact that even we in the team are not so clear about what exactly “burnout” means. Is it an “illness”, a “collection of symptoms” or a “temporary state of mind”? No wonder, as not even science is clear about what burnout actually means, let alone the criteria to be fulfilled for an official diagnosis of burnout.
Which is why we set out in search for some answers for you and also for our dear colleague and tried to find out:
- what stress is;
- the types of stress that exist;
- when stress turns into burnout;
- and how a burnout can be the key to a conscious life
Good stress vs. bad stress: a sensitive balancing act
What we often forget is that stress in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. When the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, our system is really shaken up.
It is as if all the lights are turned on at once and we feel fully present. This is especially useful before lectures, exams or important discussions, so that we are alert and focused. We call this “good” or “stimulating” type of stress “eustress”.
It only becomes problematic when stress production is a permanent state. In theory, our systems start producing the stress hormone cortisol after 15 minutes of tension – this makes the adrenal glands work very hard and is not good for the body at all.
In addition, the body releases more of its own glutamate, which destroys our nerve synapses. In short: Constant stress means shooting yourself in the foot. This type of “bad” stress is called “distress”.
In general, stress factors may affect people differently: Heat, noise, bad ventilation, but also arguments with your partner, competition, loneliness or physical factors such as accidents, pain or even – quite simply – hunger, cause various degrees of discomfort. We have all seen how irritable we can get if we have to wait too long for lunch break.
It is important to understand here that each person perceives stress in their own way and that’s OK – after all, we are all unique and therefore have different perceptions. Loud conversations in the office can be refreshing for some people, while others feel distracted, stressed and prefer to enjoy their lunch break alone in the park to wind down.
What happens in our bodies when we experience stress?
LFor a long time it was assumed that body and mind functioned completely separately from one another. We have since come to learn – thank goodness – that high stress levels take their toll on the body. Constant stress can have an impact on the following areas of the body:
Internal eye pressure increases when you are under a lot of stress. The optic nerve is supplied with less blood and can be permanently damaged. This is why people who are under a lot of stress and spend a long time looking at screens all day often have problems with their eyes.
It is home to millions of natural processes that run every day to ensure everything functions optimally. Prolonged stress brings the organisation of transmitter substances in our brain out of balance, thus changing our brain activity and promoting negative ways of thinking.
We have all been there: when things get stressful, our gut literally tightens up and we get cramps. If this condition persists, the mucous lining of the gut becomes more permeable, allowing bacteria to enter our system more easily, which can cause inflammation.
Have a look around the office, check out your colleagues. How many of them have a healthy neck and back posture? No wonder people tend to intuitively reach for their necks when they experience stress. Why? When we feel anxious or stressed, our muscles tense up. And if this goes on for some time, it can lead to chronic tension and then to headaches, for example.
More sick days resulting from the diagnosis of burnout
In 2018 the German health insurance institution AOK recorded an average of 5.7 cases of incapacity to work per 1,000 members with burnout diagnosis. Over the past 10 years, the number of burnout diagnoses has tripled. The number of sick days has also been growing: While in 2005 there were 13.9 sick days on average, by 2018, this has increased to 130.5 days of incapacity for work per 1,000 members, according to the AOK.
But stress does not necessarily lead to burnout. Two observations in particular illustrate this:
- If we observe a group of people where the members are exposed to the same stress conditions, not everyone in this group will develop burnout.
- Some people experience prolonged periods of constant stress and suddenly – one day – they develop burnout. How can this happen?
Burnout is more than being overworked, it is also a sense of loneliness
It is interesting that – as already mentioned – there are no specific diagnostic factors for burnout. Burnout usually refers to a state of exhaustion which is accompanied by inner restlessness, feelings of being overwhelmed and worn out, along with sleep disorders. Many doctors also point out that burnout is difficult to distinguish from depression.
What we know for sure is that in a state of exhaustion, things that used to be easy to handle now feel stressful and sometimes even unbearable. Even a walk with the family, a get-together with friends or the office chitchats can become stress factors and get on your nerves or at times feel unbearable.
However, the General Social Survey has revealed something totally different and exciting, namely that there is another factor that favours burnout: loneliness.
It is a downward spiral: the more overworked a person feels, the lonelier they become. And the lonelier someone feels, the sooner they feel overwhelmed because they experience no backing and support. 50 per cent of the respondents in this study said that they felt overwhelmed due to work.
In this respect, one recent survey by LinkedIN has found that the pandemic, too, has increased the risk of burnout. Increased levels of stress, insecurity and lack of leisure activities are pushing more and more workers to their limits. We need human contact, balance, support and not to feel lonely when exhaustion takes over.
How burnout can be the key to your true self
A burnout is basically a series of situations of overload in which you push yourself to the limit and at the same time do not make resources available to cope with difficult tasks.
The tricky thing about all this is that the burnout doesn’t come to your door, knocks and asks if it may come in. Those affected reported that they saw their stress levels increase continually and often did not even realise that they were systematically expecting more from themselves without creating balance.
And poof, suddenly it hits you: you just want to throw in the towel, punch into things angrily, sit in the corner knocked out, and bury your head in your lap.
This moment is usually very painful and brings people to the edge of despair. Yet it brings with it a wonderful insight that is well worth exploring, namely the ability to let go of an inauthentic self-image that we have built up (sometimes over years or decades). Saying “yes” when we actually mean “no” and swallowing feelings of anger, rage and exhaustion in order to be liked by colleagues, the boss or our partner and to convey a perfect picture of ourselves.
A burnout often pushes those affected to a moment when they can no longer maintain this self-constructed image and suppress their intuition. Intuition, which constantly kept whispering: “Why don’t you rest for a while”, “Take a break”, “Slow down a bit” or “Don’t always say yes to everything”.
In this sheer desperation and helplessness – at a time when everything seems hopeless – lies the real magic: Namely, to accept that we are exhausted and to let the old crumble down, in order to build up a new, genuine self-image and – for many – even to start a new life.
A life where you recognise and are aware of your own limits. A life that allows you to say “no” out of conviction and where you are proud to stand up for yourself and to follow your heart. One where you know colleagues will still value your work even if a deadline is extended by two days or if you forget to pick up the children’s favourite biscuits. And one where we realise that people will love us for what we really are deep down and don’t try to convey a fake image of ourselves.
What if this ceremonial burnout, the extinguishing of the flame, and getting down on our knees were a gateway to a higher understanding of who we really are and what values we really represent?
What if a burnout could help us to literally throw these fake assumptions and constructs about ourselves into the fire and let them burn, in order to build something much more valuable from then on, namely, an authentic and honest self which has learnt so much through the journey to its innermost fears that it can express its limits and truth with confidence and thus be a role model for others.
And you, what would you like to set fire to?
We hope that this article has inspired you to learn more about the phenomenon of burnout and your own limits.
With our Humanoo app we constantly try to bring you closer to your true self with different coaching sessions ranging from exercise, mindfulness and nutrition as well as creating moments when you can press the “pause button” to practice some self-care.
This is the only way to recognise when things start to get overwhelming around you again and your system needs to slow down a bit to keep you happy and efficient in the long run.
By the way, our dear colleague we were telling you about was enthusiastic about the #antiburnout themed month and even inspired to put some of her tasks aside and spend a few more moments reminiscing about her holidays.
The best part: Colleagues are also more lenient, they have learnt to understand and respect each other’s limits. This can have a lasting effect on the atmosphere and make for a happier workplace – maybe soon in your office too?
If you too would like to share your burnout story, just send us an email or DM on our social networks. We look forward to hearing your stories from real life over some real talk.
We wish you many conscious moments – especially in your professional life.
Your Humanoo team