Burned Out and Lost

By Kelsey Kuehn, LPC

Burnout is the latest buzzword in our demanding, pandemic-riddled world. Everyone seems to be talking about it. In fact, I recently read that over 300,000 Google searches are conducted for burnout each month. In the year 2021, burnout was one of the most-searched topics. I was even listening to my all-time favorite band (any other The Head and the Heart fans out there?) and heard the lyrics “I was burned out and lost. There’s no light in here now.

The reality is that burnout is a very real thing, and even if you are not experiencing it now, equipping yourself with knowledge and ways to prevent burnout could quite literally be lifesaving.

Burnout can show up in any setting in which we’re overworked…we can experience burnout as a caregiver or burnout in our role as a parent. The most common setting for burnout, however, is the workplace, as a result of chronic stress that has not been successfully managed. Symptoms include feeling exhausted or depleted, feeling detached from your work, feeling negative or cynical, and decreasing professional efficacy.

Typically, when you first begin a new job or career, you have stars in your eyes. You try hard to prove yourself by minimizing your needs and exuding boundless energy. You might try to be available at all times and not set boundaries, placing unrealistic expectations on yourself and your work and isolating from others. Sounds like a recipe for eventual burnout to me…and yet so many of us fall into this pattern.

Burnout can show up for people in different ways:

Physically: You begin noticing that you are holding stress in your body. Perhaps your posture is poor, or you are experiencing physical pain or stomach issues. Burnout and chronic stress have been implicated in an array of physical symptoms, including hair loss, autoimmune disorders, and high blood pressure.

Emotionally: When you are burned out, you can become irritable and frustrated and have a lower tolerance for inconvenience in your work. Burnout can also cause or exacerbate depression and anxiety. Sometimes these states are apparent to others, but often, you might appear as though you have it all together when internally you are actually struggling quite a bit. Suppressing and avoiding emotions and overwhelm result in a slow and steady burn. Pretending it is not there does not get rid of burnout.

Spiritually: Burnout that is impacting you spiritually may cause you to question the purpose and meaning of your work. You may feel a lack of empathy and compassion, especially if you work in a helping profession. Remember The Head and The Heart’s lyric There’s no light in here now? Burnout dims our light.

Socially: Isolation and withdrawal are indicators of burnout. You might find that stress on the job causes you to limit your time with loved ones or friends or a shift in your romantic relationship, to the point of feeling less connected and motivated. You might engage less with coworkers and feel alone in your work.

The good thing about burnout is that it tells us something needs to change. And that is great news, because you can do that. Here are some tips that might be helpful in your recovery from burnout:

  • Evaluate your workload. Think about the hours you are working and the tasks you are engaging in. Now compare that to your time and energy spent in restoration and recovery mode. Is there a mismatch? Are you focusing too much on work and too little on rest and recovery? If so, what can you do to rebalance things?
  • Evaluate what is in your control and what is not. Realizing that you cannot control external factors or certain circumstances at work can be freeing. You have the power to change your response to how you handle things that are not under your control. It’s important as well to be able to recognize when you do have some control, and to set boundaries and assert yourself for things that are good for your mental health.
  • Reward yourself. Working involves getting paid, and that’s usually a nice reward. However, we also need to reward our accomplishments (big or small) in ways that make us feel valuable. Create rewards that motivate you: think outside the box.
  • Turn to your community. It can be so helpful to share our difficult experiences with others, receive guidance and support, and feel a sense of connection. Do you have trust and support in your professional relationships? If not, it may be time to set boundaries to promote wellness rather than burnout.
  • Evaluate your expectations. Are you being fair to yourself with the expectations and goals you have placed on yourself? When we follow narratives that we “should” or “have to,” we typically experience negative emotions and stress…especially when we set unrealistic, unachievable goals.
  • Explore your values. Does your work align with what you value? When we are engaging in work outside of what greatly matters to us, we often feel inauthentic and fatigued.

While we can take a number of steps to minimize and prevent burnout, it is important to emphasize that sometimes burnout is not solely your responsibility. You might be in an unhealthy work environment with systemic issues that make it nearly impossible to achieve mental wellness. If after individual changes you continue to notice burnout, more reflection may be necessary about your work environment and policies in play.

If you are experiencing burnout or want to strengthen your toolbox on how to prevent burnout in your life, counseling may be a great resource for you.

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