How to become trained at recognising signs of exhaustion
Burnout is a disease or temporary condition that manifests with many different symptoms. First and foremost, among them are physical, emotional, and mental fatigue — caused by an array of stressors.
We already learnt in the last article that there’s no official, scientific consensus on the causes of burnout, that’s to say, everyone has their very own catalysts when it comes to stress. Therefore, burnout can also be seen as an enormous overload and exceeding our own limits — either in our private or professional life, but sometimes even in both these areas.
In this article, we’ve put together the signs that will help you recognise burnout and we’d like to sensitise you to them so that you can slow the pace if it becomes necessary in the future.
That’s precisely why burnout is so tricky: it doesn’t give you a friendly warning that it’s about to hit, it’s rather sneaky and lurks in the shadows ready to take over without the sufferers even noticing.
Knowing what burnout can feel like and how it manifests can help both those affected and those around them to consciously deal with the signs and ring the alarm bells in an emergency.
Risk factors: where does a burnout even come from?
It’s believed that there are certain risk factors for burnout that have to be out of balance for some time before the crash happens.
Plainly speaking, the best fuel for burnout is when what we do every day (for example at work or at home) isn’t in line with the rewards, appreciation, and relaxation we get in return for our efforts in the long term.
Many people feel fatigued a lot more quickly when they have to do things that go against their own values. You might be studying something that you really don’t enjoy — just because your parents want you to. In this case, it’s safe to assume that the energy required for studying is far greater than it would be for doing something you really and truly believed in.
Or imagine being promoted and your new position means dealing with tasks that cause you stomach pains. You may accept the promotion — after all, you want to climb the ladder — but getting through your daily tasks will use much more of your strength than would be the case if you loved and were passionate about them.
Doctors say that burnout is more likely if the following conditions persist:
- overload and excessive demands at work
- no leeway to have your own ideas about your tasks, work, and processes
- time and deadline pressure
- unrealistic targets — both those set by others and your own
- no feeling of belonging to a group or society
- feeling unappreciated due to the absence of praise, rewards, or positive feedback
- lack of clear differentiation between work and private life
- being permanently available by email, telephone, or on social networks
- feeling unfairly treated by superiors, colleagues, or your family
- the tasks you’re required to carry out aren’t in line with your own values
Recognising signs and symptoms of burnout in time
As is so often the case, scientists can’t agree on whether the physical or mental load is the greater contributor to burnout.
But that often has little to do with the issue for those people who are affected. What they want is relief and the feeling of finally being able to breathe again. Besides more exhaustion than usual, there are a few more typical signs that point towards burnout. In principle, they belong to one of these three categories:
1. Emotional fatigue
You feel as if you lack even the strength required to get out of bed and face your everyday tasks. Even minor stresses cause irritation and push you to your limits.
2. Mental detachment
You become increasingly disinterested in everything. You are less and less inclinded to meet other people and you avoid interpersonal exchange.
3. Limited physical and mental performance
You quickly feel overwhelmed and because of this you are no longer able to achieve the levels you are accustomed to.
Here it’s important to note that the physical symptoms of burnout can become so all-consuming that the mental symptoms go unnoticed. So it’s also worth taking a holistic approach to all physical symptoms and looking at why you have headaches or stomach pains, for example.
As a basic rule, the following physical symptoms can point towards burnout:
- persistent headache, back and neck pain without medical cause
- persistent insomnia
- digestive issues
- nervousness, panic attacks, palpitations
- perspiration without doing phsycial exercise
- irregular cycles and severe complaints during the menstrual cycle
- sudden loss of hearing, tinnitus
Burnout doesn’t just affect managers: it can affect all of us
There are those among us who think burnout only affects managers with a 70-hour workweek, who are bound to be exhausted at some point.
But this is far from true. After all — as mentioned above — we all experience stress differently. Some of us absolutely love things that cause others of us to feel physically and mentally exhausted. What some people see as simple everyday things can be a great challenge for others.
According to a study commissioned by the health insurance company “AOK”, the three professional fields most affected by burnout are:
1. Supervisory and management staff working in sales
2. Professionals in the field of dialogue marketing
3. Professionals in elderly care
Tim Mälzer is a German celebrity chef who many of you may have seen on TV. Not so long ago, he spoke out about how he himself had suffered burnout without even noticing it coming on: he’d made 500 TV shows, opened a restaurant and been in a long-distance relationship all at once. He “coped” by drinking a lot — something he’s not at all proud of. Then, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he broke down in tears.
It was precisely then that he began to wonder how things could possibly go on. He sought treatment at a rehab clinic and stopped drinking. Today, he says he’s learnt to set boundaries and that he has to be really dedicated to what he’s doing so that he doesn’t end up in the same situation again.
As you can see: whether you’re a manager, or a chef, or care for the elderly — we humans all have our own limits and we need to avoid overstepping them in the long term or our bodies and minds will have to sound the alarm.
According to Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, burnout can have up to 12 different phases:
- Feeling obliged to prove things both to yourself and others.
- Making a greater effort to meet expectations.
- Neglecting your own needs and interactions with others.
- Suppressing or ignoring internal tensions and conflicts.
- Questioning your own values, hobbies, or leisure activities.
- Denying problems and increasing intolerance of others.
- Retreating and avoiding social interaction.
- Behavioural changes, increased feeling of worthlessness, and fear.
- Feeling disconnected due to not keeping in touch with yourself or others.
- Feeling empty and attempting to compensate for this by overreacting (sex, food, alcohol, or other addictive substances).
- Depression with feelings of indifference, hopelessness, fatigue, and an absence of perspective.
- Risk of an acute mental and physical breakdown.
Naturally, theses phases may manifest themselves in a different order from one person to the next. Also, not everybody experiences all of the phases. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to have read about it so that we can consciously deal with the condition if we notice a recurrence of such situations or feelings in ourselves.
When it comes to testing yourself, please keep in mind that you should be very careful with anything you find on the web. It’s important to not believe everything you read — the same applies to this quick test for burnout. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to speak to a qualified specialist and to seek help.
Still, we thought it wouldn’t do any harm to put together a few questions designed to inspire you to evaluate your own situation and how happy you are with the way you use the time and energy you have.
Get a piece of paper and have a look at these questions. Take your time and draw a line whenever your answer is “yes”.
- I tend to fall asleep easily, but then wake up at night with too many thoughts in my head.
- I’m lacking the energy to deal with my family, leisure time, and hobbies as I used to — there’s just not enough time now.
- I prefer not to talk to my colleagues because it takes away from the time I have for working.
- Compared to before, I am suffering more from physical issues such as headaches and back and neck pain. My doctor hasn’t been able to determine a physical reason.
- I frequently find it hard to switch off after work.
- I can see that alcohol relaxes me and as a result I’m drinking more.
- The weekend isn’t long enough for me to recover.
- I struggle to focus on my work, I’m easily distracted by colleagues or emails, and I find it hard to regain my focus.
- I quickly feel resigned if things don’t go the way I want at the office.
- I sometimes feel as if I’m in a hamster wheel: no matter how much I run; I never get anywhere.
- I have to force myself to get up every day because I detect inner resistance. I tend to be okay once I get going, though.
- Others are noticing my mood swings: I am frequently irritable when I feel stressed.
That’s it! Take a look at your notes and count the lines. If you’ve answered more than 5 questions with a “yes”, don’t panic! But it’s still worth thinking about which parts of your work and private life are making you unhappy and how you could change them.
Usually, just confiding in somebody you’re close to or a therapist is a great help and it’ll make it easier for you to make sense of your situation.
After all, we all know it’s not always easy to take an objective view of things that we struggle with. It’s easy to suppress issues, especially when they make us feel uncomfortable.
As you’ve seen, burnout comes on slowly and this makes it difficult to identify and take preventative measures. As is the case with many psychological and physical conditions, there are ways for you to prevent them from happening in the first place.
These are the topics we’ll be looking at in our upcoming articles. You’ll be given tools that’ll help you to set your boundaries more easily and to identify stress more quickly.
We can already tell you one thing, though: living your life consciously will help you to avoid a host of complaints. It may sound esoteric or abstract, but it’s really all about being conscious in the moment. Be there in your mind when you wake up in the mornings and listen to your heart every day. That way, you’ll quickly notice when things aren’t going well and you’ll be able to take the necessary steps to change things.
And if you really are too exhausted: don’t beat yourself up, go easy on yourself. Whatever we experience in life, there’s always a lesson to be learnt that makes us stronger — at least if we’re willing. Lots of those affected by burnout can confirm that it turned out to be an important step towards a new life with different rules where they got to know themselves in a very different way.
Thanks for your patience and interest in reading this article. As always, we’d love to read about your experience with burnout.
We wish you many relaxing moments.
All the best,
Your Humanoo team