How to prevent burnout
Looking at the causes of burnout, the effects of it, and signs you're close to burning out.
How can we pause life and take a breath? There is a very subtle difference between stress and burnout. Stress is our body’s reaction to feeling pressure from various factors and to feeling threatened in some way. Burnout is prolonged stress phases causing emotional, physical, and mental fatigue.
The good news is we can prevent a lot of the stress in our lives and the onset of burnout. If we switch around our motivation behind our goals and learn to engage with others differently, then we can live much happier lives. My name is David Chorlton, and I am a Positive Psychology Practitioner. Let us dive in and find out how to live a more stress-free life.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
According to Sherry Bourg Carter, Psy.D, stress and burnout can cause many negative symptoms such as:
Increased illness frequency
Patterns of high to low energy
Chest pains and breathing difficulty
These are just a few of the health challenges we can face when we are stressed or going through burnout. So, how can we limit or prevent these symptoms in this fast-paced modern world?
How to prevent burnout
For me, burnout often occurs due to two deeply rooted motivators. These are based around pushing ourselves too hard towards a goal and in addition overstretching our social capacity, whilst both meeting additional stressors. We may not even be aware of our motivations behind our goals and our social interactions.
Focusing on your goals
Is our focus on our goal via a learning process or performance end goal focus?
What is the motivation behind our goal?
Why do we want that goal so much?
Individuals who focus on the end goal purely tend to be highly critical of themselves, compare themselves to others and are sensitive to critique. The thought process here is that once that trophy is obtained only then will this individual be happy. This type of focus can lead to high levels of stress, over working, anxiety and other negative influences. This is certainly not to say that having an end goal is bad, and many benefits can arise from having an end goal, notably personal growth.
The key here is finding a balance of where our focus is orientated.
It is important to find a balance with a focus on a learning process with our goals (which can overlap with a mindful goal focus), and also still have attention on our end goal, albeit without having our full focus on that end point. Once we begin to enjoy the micro goals with mindfulness and enjoy the journey towards our end point, we then begin to fill up with many various positive emotions and become less stressed.
A good friend of mine is currently making a cookbook for charity, but then she became quite stressed because of the pressure of the end goal. We discussed the importance of creating a set window of time and creating an environment for making a recipe.
Enjoy making the food, put music on and even dance a little and become creative. If every week she created that one window of time for creativity, took a few photos and made a few notes, the recipes would eventually grow.
In this manner we see a learned process focus on our goals and this creates an environment for positive emotions to arise.
Social and empathy fatigue
What is the motivation behind your social interactions?
Are they intrinsic (compassion, love, shared mutual connection)?
Are they extrinsic (social proof, desire to please, a promotion)?
We may have children, our romantic partner, a sick relative, friends asking to meet up, whom we rarely see due to our work commitments. We may have difficulty in saying ‘NO,’ and push ourselves too hard. This lifestyle can result in a lack of sleep, too much caffeine, too much unhealthy food and so on. This can then become a vicious cycle and result in exhaustion and potential burnout.
The motivation here might be our need to please others. Our motivation here might be kindness and empathy. We want to see people because we care for them and they deserve our time.
Molecular biologist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard says that empathy is an effective resonance with someone else. You may suffer because that person suffers, or you may feel happy because the other person feels happy. Cognitive empathy is where we can logically appreciate what the other person is going through.
Emotional or effective empathy is where we feel what the other feels. Empathy fatigue is when we experience empathic resonance too often and it leads to exhaustion. We see this very often with doctors, nurses and carers.
This is a little different in extremity to listening to a friend down on their luck which can bring your feelings down too. When we are stretched in our lifestyle with work, family and friends, we can also be exposed to an essence of empathy fatigue. For example, if one of your best friends is going through a bad trauma, and in addition a close relative had cancer, and in addition you had a work deadline to meet; then the pathway to burnout may begin.
The key message here is that if we overstretch our social capacity and effective empathy in addition to this environment meeting with other life stressors, we can begin the onset of burnout. Matthieu Ricard and Neuroscientist Tania Singer suggest that compassion does not lead to fatigue due to its association with positive emotions. The practice of compassion can help us avoid empathy fatigue and has a different mindset.
Having a busy social life is a good thing, but if you are already very stretched from work and personal challenges and this environment meets further stress and pressures, you may hit a brick wall. This does not mean that you are suffering from burnout right now, but we need to be mindful of this process as burnout could occur if we stay in a stressful environment.
Take the time to assess the motivation behind your goals and take the time to assess your social balance and discover if your motivation(s) are intrinsic or extrinsic. If a friend is in need of course you will want to be there for them.
If the following weekend you have a few hectic days with the family and also a job interview on the Monday, then you may wish to show more compassion to your friend by buying them a gift rather than potentially suffering from empathy fatigue. With the job interview Monday, is this job based around your values, and passions or is this job based around external pressures?
Once we begin to ask ourselves questions and assess our motivations based around intrinsic and extrinsic processes in relation to our goals and social engagements, we can take away a lot of the stress in our day to day lives and we know where we are going and why.
About the author
David Chorlton is a Positive Psychology Practitioner and the founder of online wellness platform Meaningful Paths. David also volunteers to work with communities in developing countries and creates compassion and gratitude educational courses for children in addition to resilience trainings and more for teenagers and adults.